Documents considered by the Committee on 27 April 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents


7   Interoperability for European public services

(32378)

18150/10

COM(10) 744 + ADDs 1-2

Commission Communication: Towards interoperability for European public services

Legal base
DepartmentCabinet Office
Basis of considerationMinister's letter of 24 March 2011
Previous Committee ReportHC 428-xiv (2010-11), chapter 5 (26 January 2011)
To be discussed in Council27 May 2011 Telecoms Council
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared

Background

7.1  Commission Communication 9981/10 (COM(10) 245) sets out the Commission's Digital Agenda for Europe (which replaces the earlier i2010 Strategy). It is the first of seven flagship initiatives under the "Europe 2020" strategy.[37] In unveiling it on 19 May 2010, the Commission said that implementing its ambitious agenda would contribute significantly to the EU's economic growth and spread the benefits of the digital era to all sections of society. [38] At that time, Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes said:

"We must put the interests of Europe's citizens and businesses at the forefront of the digital revolution and so maximise the potential of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to advance job creation, sustainability and social inclusion. The ambitious strategy set out today shows clearly where we need to focus our efforts in the years to come. To fully realise the potential of Europe's digital future we need the full commitment of Member States, the ICT sector and other vital economic players."[39]

7.2  The Digital Agenda focuses on seven priority areas, and foresees some 100 follow-up actions, of which 31 would be legislative. The seven areas are:

  • creating a digital Single Market;
  • greater interoperability;
  • boosting internet trust and security;
  • much faster internet access;
  • more investment in research and development;
  • enhancing digital literacy skills and inclusion; and
  • applying information and communications technologies to address challenges facing society like climate change and the ageing population.

7.3  The Digital Agenda stresses the need for Member States to provide efficient and effective cross-border ICT-enabled government "eGovernment" services, which is judged to have a higher chance of succeeding through close collaboration, streamlined processes and trusted information exchange based on interoperable ICT infrastructure and systems.[40]

The Commission Communication

7.4  The Communication explains the Commission's intended actions to ensure the interoperability of ICT-based government services across Europe. It is directed at Commission services and also acts as a call to all Member States to increase their awareness of the importance of interoperability in delivering national and cross-border solutions.

7.5  In order to achieve a common environment in which to deliver interoperability across Europe, the Communication introduces the European Interoperability Strategy and the European Interoperability Framework (which are at Annex 1 and 2 respectively of the Communication). These complementary documents set out the general terms of delivery for the Commission and Member States when they are required to deliver ICT-based services.

7.6  Facilitated by the Commission, the Strategy (EIS) is based on an agreed vision by Member States and sets out a common and coherent approach to interoperability in order to support the Digital Agenda for Europe. The EIS provides the direction and sets priorities for actions needed to improve interaction, exchange and cooperation among Member States across borders and across sectors when establishing public services. It clusters future interoperability activities around the following:

  • Trusted Information Exchange: Member States are invited to join existing and new pilots to gain experience in cross-border interactions, and for the Commission to ensure its infrastructure is interoperable with the pilots;
  • Interoperability Architecture: Member States and the Commission will work towards a common vision for European interoperability architecture, and if necessary support the architecture by setting up common infrastructures and common services; and
  • Assessment of ICT implications of new EU legislation: The Commission will develop a method to be used in preparing legislative acts with a view to achieving a better understanding of how ICT can support the effective and efficient implementation of such legislation.

These clusters will be supported by accompanying measures on awareness-raising and best practice sharing. The Communication goes on to detail how it intends to deliver these clusters with the assistance of Member States.

7.7  Based on extensive consultation with Member States and other stakeholders, the Framework (EIF) is a common set of guidelines on interoperability for use by the Commission, Member States and other organisations who wish to collaborate jointly to provide ICT-enabled public services. The Framework specifies the need for common elements such as vocabulary, concepts, principles, policies, guidelines, recommendations, standards, specifications and practices. It provides guidance for Member States regarding the design and implementation of public services.

7.8  With the Strategy and Framework as a basis for future activities within Europe intended to improve interoperability within public services, the Communication encourages active participation by all Member States and other organisations to ensure success. The Commission encourages Member States to:

  • align their national interoperability strategies with the European Interoperability Strategy and other national initiatives with corresponding initiatives and actions at EU level;
  • work alongside each other and the Commission on implementing the European Interoperability Strategy, while monitoring progress and impact of related actions at national level;
  • align their national interoperability frameworks with the European Interoperability Framework;
  • take into account the European dimension at an early stage in the development of any public service that might become part of a cross-border service in future; and
  • contribute to the governance of the European Interoperability Strategy and related interoperability activities.

7.9  The Commission wishes to lead by example, aligning its own internal ICT strategy to the European Interoperability Strategy and using the Framework as guidance whenever systems are developed to support European Union legislation. Furthermore, the Commission promises to ensure:

  • implementing the Strategy through existing instruments with the cooperation of Member States and other stakeholders;
  • the Framework is applied when implementing new legislation and establishing new European public services; and
  • governance of the Strategy and related activities is in cooperation with Member States.

The Government's view

7.10  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 18 January 2011, the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Mr Francis Maude) noted that, as eGovernment is a devolved matter, the devolved administrations had been consulted in the preparation of this Explanatory Memorandum.

7.11  He noted that the challenges outlined in the Communication and annexes were mirrored domestically, such as those pertaining to the different terminology used across the UK for exchanging information/data and lack of harmonised business processes across sectors. He also noted that through the soon-to-be-published Government ICT Strategy and its associated work-streams, such as the Standards and Architecture Framework, the Government was working to deliver a comprehensive approach to tackling the national interoperability challenge. He said that the Government would look to integrate elements of the European Interoperability Strategy into the Government's own ICT Strategy and consider the European Interoperability Framework in the finalisation of its own national framework. The Government believed the resolution of common interoperability issues would be better solved by working with Europe than in national or regional silos and therefore it would assist the Commission in achieving the goals set out in the Communication.

7.12  As with the related Commission Communication on the EU eGovernment Action Plan,[41] two of the devolved administrations raised points, which the Minister set out as follows:

"The Northern Ireland Executive have indicated that the importance of the successful delivery of the national framework in order to test compatibility between their own framework as well as that of Europe's.

"The Scottish Executive have specifically expressed an interest in the delivery mechanisms the UK Government will put in place to address the Communication's actions, the importance of data protection and privacy and involvement of all stakeholders. Lastly the Scottish Executive asks they be kept up to date on this agenda as it progresses."

Our assessment

7.13  We considered the Communication on 26 January 2011.

7.14   As with the related Commission Communication on the European eGovernment Action Plan, we noted that the Minister again referred to questions raised by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but failed to comment further.

7.15  He also noted one or two other areas in which he was not entirely at one with the Commission's approach, e.g., on the specific terminology used within the Communication with regard to "open specifications", "formalised specifications" and "standards and open platforms".

7.16  With four months between then and when Council Conclusions were due to be adopted we asked the Minister to write to us before the Council meeting to outline how the questions raised by the devolved administrations and his own concerns had been addressed in the prospective Conclusions.

7.17  In the meantime, we retained the document under scrutiny.

The Minister's letter of 24 March 2011

7.18  In his letter of 26 March 2011, the Minister responds as follows:

INTEROPERABILITY FRAMEWORKS

"The Government is committed to publishing a national interoperability framework and the devolved administrations have been invited to collaborate in its development so that their own frameworks can be taken into consideration from the outset. Given the administrations' involvement to this date, it is expected compatibility between the respective frameworks will be ensured.

DELIVERY MECHANISMS

"Post the publication of a forthcoming national interoperability framework and the Government ICT Strategy, new structures will be put in place that will facilitate the continued open dialogue with the devolved administrations. Subject matter experts will be called on to focus efforts on the European agenda to ensure all interested parties are involved and kept up to date. Until then, the Government will use existing channels to inform the devolved administrations in delivering immediate actions.

DATA PROTECTION PRINCIPLES AND PRIVACY

"The Government has strengthened and clarified references to data protection principles and privacy within the Council Conclusions. The latest round of negotiations has seen the successful inclusion of text reinforcing the rule that any use of personal data is to be carried out in accordance with Member States' national legal frameworks. The Government will continue to prioritise the importance of data protection principles and privacy when taking forward any future actions in this area.

INVOLVEMENT OF STAKEHOLDERS

"The latest iteration of the Council Conclusions includes a specific recognition of the involvement of stakeholders when developing user-driven eGovernment services. The Government has a range of experience here and will work with Member States, as per the Action Plan, to disseminate best practice in the coming years.

OPEN SPECIFICATIONS

"During the latest negotiations for the Council Conclusions, the Government sought clarification as to the terminology 'formalised specifications', 'open specifications' and 'standards and open platforms'. The Commission has admitted the terms are confusing but that they had to publish the European Interoperability Framework using definitions embedded within existing EU sectors. The Commission conceded that 'open specifications' and 'open standards' were defined differently in different documents but they hoped that through time, Member States will converge on one agreed term — which term that was would not be for the Commission to state."

7.19  Finally, the Minister says that the Government has successfully negotiated the removal of "these confusing terms" in the Council Conclusions, which he says now refer "to just 'open specifications' throughout", does not see any further changes in this area and is therefore content that this issue has now been resolved.

Conclusion

7.20   We are grateful to the Minister for this further information, which makes clear that the devolved administrations will be properly involved in the creation of the national interoperability framework and its implementation, and that the Council Conclusions will embrace UK interests.

7.21  We now clear the document.



37   See http://ec.europa.eu/eu2020/pdf/COMPLET%20EN%20BARROSO%20%20%20007%20-%20Europe%202020%20-%20EN%20version.pdf for details. Back

38   See http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/digital-agenda/index_en.htm for full background. Back

39   See http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/press/press_releases/2010/pr1045_en.htm. Back

40   Full details of the Digital Agenda Communication and the Government's views are set out in our Report of 8 September 2010; see (31638) 9981/10: HC 428-i (2010-11), chapter 28 (8 September 2010).

 Back

41   See (32377) 18135/10 + ADD 1 at chapter 6 of this Report. Back


 
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Prepared 10 May 2011