The European Union has done a fine job creating opportunities for its citizens and their goods and services. We can travel between member states sometimes without even noticing crossing the border. The single market offers better opportunities for entrepreneurs from countries with modest sized markets, like Estonia, to ship and receive goods from all over Europe without tolls or tariffs. However, trade has become more digitalised. The online environment offers more and more opportunities. In most cases, it saves time compared doing it in the real world.
For instance, online bank transfers and filing your declaration of income, or signing any document digitally saves a lot of legwork with papers. And not only legwork – digital documents save Estonia about an Eiffel tower height of paper every month. There are over 3000 of these e-services in Estonia, which based on World Bank’s report “Digital Dividends” saves each Estonian 5.4 days a year. There is no reason other Europeans don’t deserve a week worth of hassle free time. Therefore, the European Commission is launching an eGovernment Action Plan to facilitate the development of effective, efficient and user-friendly government services in the EU. To help take leaps instead of steps, I will share some ideas based on Estonian Government proposals for the action plan.
To create common digital services and smooth flow of information between member states, some basics are needed to be set first. Today, all member states have some degree of digital services and in most cases their institutions share information with each other easily, but when it comes to crossing borders for the information, things get tricky, as countries have different standards, some have digital IDs and measures for authentication. These differences are the first hurdle for sharing data between member states, which is why the Commission should work towards setting technical standards and principles for data exchange and cross-domain usage of it. Something similar to how the Internet works – to go to a web page we have agreed how the address of the web page is written with all the “w-s”, dots and domains and everyone can create their own addresses following those sets of rules.
In addition to technical standards, legislative measures and cooperation mechanisms are also needed. With eIDAS regulation (electronic identification and trust services) common agreement was found to mutually accept electronic IDs and trust services, but there is no common approach for data exchange. There are many areas where common information system is lacking. For instance, Estonian Social Insurance Board has 20-30 000 cross-border cases which involve information exchange, but there is no smooth exchange of data. That is often because many countries don’t have an electronic databases and information is sent on paper or fax, or they don’t have an agreed data exchange procedure. In some cases, it is even difficult to pinpoint which organization deals with certain issue in another country. From the positive side, there are areas where cross border data exchange works, like information regarding passengers, taxes, companies or driver’s licences. Estonia and Finland have even agreed on using the same digital platform to exchange information between the countries, something that is needed across EU.
Setting common technical standards and legislative measures are essential for cross border data exchange. Smooth flow of digital information between countries would be a starting point to cut the red tape. If all EU citizens have eIDs and digital signatures would be a common practice, it would be a significant ease to do business across EU countries – no need to wait days or even weeks for signed documents. Efficient eGoverments and their e-services would make them more invisible and that is something that will not go unnoticed by the citizens, as less interaction means more likeability. An addition here would be “once only” principle. By this, if an institution has once asked certain information from a citizen, it is not allowed to ask it again, instead the data is asked and shared between institutions. That has been being implemented in Estonia for some time already. Having it across EU would be a landmark for the digital single market.
Electronic identity and all the services it brings, including digital signatures, are one of the cornerstones for a digital society. The most widespread issue for cross border digital cooperation is how to identify the parties involved and provide a secure exchange of data. As mentioned before, the eIDAS regulation gave a solid ground for different eID-s and trust services with mutual recognition between member states. To unlock the economic potential that lays there, first we need a secure eID for as many EU citizens as possible, one that they would actually use. Even though an average citizen doesn’t need government e-services on a daily basis, the usage of, for instance, internet banking is more common. Hence, the Commission should work with member states encouraging banks to implement services based on eIDAS. In addition, Estonians don’t need to carry their driver’s license with them – all the relevant information is accessible form the electronic identity card. We only have to carry our license when we drive to neighbouring EU countries. Same goes with health insurance. To kick-start the process of widespread eIDs, more thorough monitoring of the usage of them and a comprehensive metrics system to measure eIDs would be needed. This would give us a better understanding of the starting point and where we are heading.
There are plenty of actions needed in the action plan for digital single market to prosper. Many of the ideas proposed here seem simple enough, yet to apply them across 28 EU member states with all different levels of government digitalization, is a challenge. To overcome it, most important is for the action plan to have clear tasks and a system to measure the outcomes. As we have experienced from the benefits of the four freedoms – movement of people, goods, services and capital, there is a lot to benefit from free movement of data, and in the age of information, it is time to add it as the fifth.