European integration needs digital integration

Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to deliver a digital transformation of the European Commission’s work. Can policy-makers rise to the challenge?
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to deliver a full digitalisation of the Commission’s work

By Salesforce

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17 Jan 2023

Digital transformation of public services and administrations is a key priority for European institutions and policymakers. It will speed up access to services for Commission officials, European citizens, and governments and agencies working across the European Union.

This is why President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has placed such high importance on the ambition to deliver full digitalisation of the Commission’s work, referencing the need for speedier digitalisation in her inauguration speech.

There is steady progress being made towards this ambition. The European Commission Digital Strategy sets out the way in which this will be achieved. This important document maps out the route to achieve digitalisation, stressing the importance of principles such as digital by default, user-centered design, and the importance of ensuring that skills and resources are in place.

However, significant barriers remain. Some digital sector experts are warning that achieving this critical ambition will require closer integration of different agencies, and more effective cross-Commission coordination.

The importance of this issue was brought sharply into focus during the recent pandemic, which both accelerated progress towards full digitalisation whilst also shining a spotlight on some of the potential tensions and challenges when it comes to implementation.

Dr Carolin Möller, Senior Manager – Public Sector Digital Transformation, at the leading CRM provider Salesforce believes that Covid demonstrates that if the Commission is to deliver on its vision of full digitalisation, then it is essential that the learning from the past two years is not lost.

“Covid was a hugely disruptive event, but like most disruptive events it also generated a lot of learning,” Dr Möller tells us. “It accelerated the digitalisation of services, but it also uncovered some of the challenges and barriers that remain. As businesses, governments, and European agencies, we all have a responsibility to ensure that we capture that learning and use it to help move into a fully digitalised future.”

One of the key barriers that Dr Möller identifies is the sheer size and scale of the functions that are currently the responsibility of individual European agencies. Whilst there is increasing coordination via DIGIT (the Directorate General for Informatics), it remains the case that many individual operational DG departments have their own strategy, approach, and budget for digital transformation.

Whilst this allows agencies to develop solutions that meet their specific needs, the lack of a fully unified approach does run the risk of cost inefficiencies and a duplication of efforts that could potentially hinder the achievement of full digitalisation.

“At the moment there are pockets of really great work going on within DG departments,” Dr Möller explains. “However, without strategic coordination there is a real risk of fragmentation. Solutions are needed that start with some common principles and common platforms. This will not only improve integration but also reduce costs in the longer term.”

One potential solution that has been identified is a move to platform technology. A platform approach could enable the development of common solutions for basic functions, such as HR or purchasing across DGs, as well as providing a shared foundation for different parts of the Commission’s activities to develop the bespoke applications that they need.

The valuable and potentially transformational role that platform-based approaches can play is already widely acknowledged within the Commission. DIGIT has previously described platform technology as the “fundamental catalyst of the modernisation of the portfolio of corporate digital solutions.”

However, whilst the merits of a platform-based approach are widely understood, there remain barriers that could result in delaying the benefits of the platform approach.

“The European Commission is a highly complex, multifaceted institution.” Dr Möller tells The Parliament. “This makes it ideally suited to a platform approach.”

The technology that can enable shared platform approaches already exists and is being implemented across different Commission departments and agencies. It is providing the ability for closer cooperation and collaboration in addition to simplifying the sharing and accessing of data.

Most importantly, however, it is freeing up staff in departments responsible for critical functions from border security to the environment to focus on delivering key strategic priorities rather than on internal systems and process. This delivers benefits to the wider Commission, and to citizens in individual member states.

For Dr Möller, this is the critical issue. “European citizens are concerned with the issues that impact on the security, prosperity, and wellbeing of themselves and their families,” she explains. “Good technology should always seek to simplify rather than to complicate. It should simply allow people to do their jobs effectively. This is what platform technology can deliver.”

Platform approaches will ultimately be a key enabler of the digitalisation of the Commission’s work. The challenge for policymakers and officials now, is putting the support in place to make this something that happens sooner rather than later.

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