Analsysis: Successive efforts to bring UK public services into the internet age have largely run in parallel rather than according to EU initiatives
In March 2000 Tony Blair announced that the target for 100% of public services to become available online, set out in the Modernising Government white paper of the previous year, had been brought forward from 2008 to 2005. That was a rare example of the UK adjusting its digital government policy to meet an EU target - though, typically, Whitehall did not announce it as such.
For the most part, 20 years of UK digital government programmes since John Major’s Government Direct have run in parallel to, rather than as a consequence of, EU initiatives. The current European eGovernment Action Plan 2016-2020 is no exception.
For what it is worth, the European eGovernment Action Plan 2016-2020 has three priorities:
• Modernise public administration using digital enablers.
• Achieve the digital internal market, including through cross-border interoperability of systems.
• To “engage more with citizens and businesses to deliver high quality services”.
The plan, which does not have its own budget, succeeds the 2011-2015 plan adopted to implement the Malmo Declaration in 2009. Its achievements were patchy, and a formal evaluation commented that a static five-year plan seems too long, given the fast pace of change.
The separation between the UK and EU approaches has had three inter-related foundations:
- The UK’s distinct bureaucratic tradition when set beside that of most of its continental neighbours, exemplified by the lack of a national ID card and the early adoption of outsourcing. While UK ministers have been quite happy to crow when aspects of the UK’s e-government programme do well in benchmarking exercises, and have tried to promote services such as G-Cloud, the UK’s priorities have rarely coincided with those of the European Commission.
- In IT issues, there is a sense in the UK that it has little to learn from the larger EU member states (as opposed to, say, Estonia and Denmark). Even in the 1990s, when France was basking in its successes with Minitel and smart cards, the UK’s exemplar was Singapore.
- Key figures have closer personal and career links with their counterparts in other common law Anglophone countries, for example Australia, than with the continent. In years of covering EU e-government events, I cannot recall a single senior UK figure speaking publicly in any language other than English.
As well as being inter-related, these phenomena tend to be self-reinforcing and are seen in the European Commission as part of a eurosceptic mindset. One low point was at the Manchester e-Government Conference during the 2005 UK presidency with the low key reception given to then European Commissioner Viviane Reding, when it was clear many of the UK hosts had no idea who she was.
Whatever happens elsewhere in the Brexit negotiations, a parting of the ways in digital government is unlikely to upset either side.
Image by Swissbert, public domain through flickr