|eGovernment and eProcurement: to be or not to be|
Monday, 23 July 2012 13:46
The Bangemann report1 from 1994 puts a special emphasize on the launching of the information society era through the introduction to the concept of the pan-European network for public-information interchange, today known under the term eGovernment within the program of the Digital Agenda for Europe2 (DA).
Outlined as application №9 in the BR, the trans-European public administration network encompasses in itself a subset of other applications. One of them is the separately described application №8 for the creation of European electronic tendering network.
One may ask how it comes that the eProcurement network application precedes the general trans-European public administration network in its numbering. Part of the main issues concerning the success of all types of public administration networks including the ones for eProcurement is rooted exactly in the design of the models for these two policies, a model that appear to separate and disconnect contextually related issues. Instead of showing the interdependencies and interrelatedness, the distinction of the policies’ (and respective applications/systems) is overemphasized within the applications’ (Bangemann report) and actions’ (DA) descriptions then and today.
The eGovernment and eProcurement concepts
eGovernment refers to the use of ICT to provide and improve government services, transactions and interactions with citizens, businesses, and other arms of government. Most of the EU countries show eGovernment initiatives, mainly related to the improvement of governance at the national level. Several eGovernment activities also attempt to take place at the EC level, as presented in the list of eGovernment Fact Sheets maintained by the EC.
The EC is actively supporting eGovernment both at the national level and at its own supranational level in a two-tier approach3.
At a political level, the Europe 2020 economic strategy and the DA flagship initiative aim to deliver sustainable economic and social benefits from a digital single market based on fast and ultra fast Internet and interoperable applications. At an operational - the EC needs to tackle two challenges: modernizing its own 'internal' administration and operating professional trans-European services.
Concerning the modernization of its administration, the Commission in 2005 renewed its commitment to the e-Commission initiative, aimed at delivering better quality and more transparent services for staff and external stakeholders by 2010. The VP for interinstitutional relations and administration is responsible for the advancement of eGovernment at the Commission level through large-scale activities that implement the e-Commission strategy4. DG InfSo and DG Digit implement this strategy, through several programs and activities: An integral part of the eGovernment agenda for transforming the public administration across Europe is the switch over to eProcurement.
eProcurement refers to the use of electronic communications and transaction processing by government institutions and other public sector organizations when buying supplies and services or tendering public works. It is done with a software application that includes features for supplier management and complex auctions. Its new generation is on-demand or a software-as-a-service.
The eProcurement deployment can increase the accessibility, transparency and efficiency of public procurement procedures and strengthen competition for government contracts. The implementation of such high-impact eGovernment services can save billions of euros for the public administrations, resulting in more EU taxpayers money available for essential services.
In the following commentary, I will examine the overall vision for the eGovernment application and the concrete example of eProcurement platforms, envisioned within the Bangemann report and further developed in the context of mainly the DA and connected policies and initiatives.
My goal would be to demonstrate how the lack of interconnectedness in the policy-designs for the implementations of the two applications has been one of the core reasons for the little success in their impact and realization next to the other key factors, also to be presented. I will look at the advancements of the DA and other determining factors within the EC action plans for the avoidance for the repetition of poor outcome like in the past 18 years through the implementations of the relevant action points in the DA.
The core reasoning for the lack of success
Both back in 1994 and still today the main advantage from the successful implementation of a trans-European public administration network would be for the public administrations and the EU citizens.
Already at the stage of describing who would be the biggest beneficiary of this application, the EU business and organizations have been fully excluded in the description of the application. That demonstrates that the universal character of such applications to target various user groups has been neglected. Hence, a big number of beneficiaries has been overlooked.
Instead the main reasoning for the introduction of interconnected EU Public Administrations networks has been the cost-effectiveness and the flexibility in the delivery. Also it would support the cohesion process through the integration of linked collaborative environments and tools.
However, with the introduction of a concrete example for a public administration network in the view of the eProcurement platforms a third reasoning appears as the most crucial. It was based on the enabling of telematic services market in Europe, leading to an enhancement of the competitive environment between suppliers drawn from the wider internal market: while the general goals for fostering of such public administration networks were the socially convenient and cheaper ICT interexchange, in the case of the eProcurement, the biggest goal was the support of the EU competition and strengthening of the single market with the creation of access to new business opportunities to a number of EU organizations.
Following that consideration, the completely separate way of looking at the general trans-European public administration network application from the e-tendering application, could be considered as one of the main reasons for the lack of real development on whatever kind of pan-EU success story for both of them up until the DA. When the two policies were described, their mutual influence was highly neglected already by the fact that there was no mentioning in the two applications descriptions for their co-relations.
Why is the consolidated look at the general public administration network, and at the eProcurement platforms so important?
Most of the EU governments’ expenditure on goods and services, worth up to 1/5 of their collective GDP and around €1.5-2 trillion, comes from public tenders. This spending can make a significant contribution to stimulating economic growth and creating more jobs. eProcurement can help do this, create free and fair competition, promote access to all. eProcurement and eInvoicing could reduce total procurement costs by around 5% and lower transaction costs by 10% or more, saving governments tens of billions of euros annually.5
Unfortunately the outcomes from the Evaluation of the 2004 Action plan for implementing the legal framework for electronic public procurement6 still demonstrates a lack of mutual learning from concrete to general and from general to concrete in the eGovernment domain.
Still today, most of the key points in the DA Action list, are being tackled very independently in the policy-making process: either the eProcurement is seen as a separate domain on its own disconnected from the general eGovernment services platforms vision, or the latter is very widely covering a number of issues, disregarding the already researched questions within example areas such as the one of eProcurement.
The Actions try to build upon the historical lack of pan-European success of the first actions and overall aim to achieve the same positive goals of the trans-EU public administration collaboration idea. However, as already mentioned they are rather discretely developed, each on its own as you can see from Actions 84, 86, 87, 89 and 90.7
According to the 2010 Evaluation and still in regards of the current actions, the most discrepancies for the EU-failure occur due to two main reasons, which need to be tackled in order not to repeat with the same lack of real progress.
The first reason is the defragmentation between the different Member States in the legislative transposition of the necessary actions of the respective EU directives. The positive integrationist approach of the 2004 Action plan was rather “soft law” – designed to promote discussion and debate; to share studies or experience in developing such systems and disseminate best practices. That is still rather the case also in the view of white papers and case studies, introduced by the DA actions, but at least with a vision of further “hard law” implementation.
Despite that since 2004 Directives have been adopted for the promotion of paperless procurement and eGovernment as a whole, also together with their further provisions, intentionally they didn’t have a prescriptive character6. The refraining from obligations imposition on Member States (contracting authorities, system users) caused the unequal action taking from the different governments and the different level of success. This resulted in fragmentation in efforts and in the failure to create a really unified framework.
The second core reason is the technical decentralization of those platforms, described in the 2010 Evaluation as a policy of “letting 1000 flowers bloom” designed to encourage creativity and innovation in an emerging market, where no mature standards or technological solutions had yet emerged. While there are several examples for successful national eProcurement platforms for example, they remain island-alike and re-confirm that currently there is no such pan-European solution.
The available tools and websites were still underdeveloped – the Extended Impact Assessment mentioned that most of the experience in 2004 was limited to pilot schemes, often designed for below threshold contracts and/or central governments.
The 36 portals and platforms created in 2004 covered 16 EU countries (21 at national level, 9 at regional and 6 - sector specific), but were mostly limited to publishing information about opportunities. Only 5 Member States made available systems covering both the notification and tendering phases. Overall, it was noted that the availability of solutions decreased as one went through the phases from e-Notification to e-Payment and particularly once the phases required a two-way flow of information. At this time legal considerations were not necessarily taken into account: although advances electronic signatures were permitted in 15 of the 25 Member States, actual use was low and not necessarily related to eProcurement6.
This is valid for the majority of such public administration digital platforms.
Third, the level of digital literacy or the proficiency of ICT skills in the usage of new systems like the ones for eProcurement have a great importance for the first understanding and second the adoption of such solutions.8
Inequalities in skills and access can limit and fragment take-up of eGovernment and similar service platforms. Failure to address clearly the needs of potential users can also hamper take-up of those digital environments as even those citizens and businesses with appropriate levels of access may choose not to use available eGovernment and the respective services. The levels of trust in a concrete service, especially one in a complex context, are crucial for the users’ readiness to adopt the respective ICT.
Forth, the realization of eGovernment benefits can be constrained or blocked by inflexibilities in responding to the need to make necessary changes in public administration practices, processes and organizational structures to allow them to be better able to make appropriate effective use of electronic networking capabilities.
This furthermore slows the adoption process. An internal change management is needed to guarantee the appropriate approach to introduce the new systems and tools, so that they don’t contradict other procedures and regulations of work. Not only that the users have to be trained to feel confident in using such technologies, but also they have to feel empowered that they don’t break the work procedures, especially within public administrations work environment.
Fifth, due to the large number of various existing platforms with different interfaces, the user-experience is highly diversified. That complicates additionally the ease of use of those multistakeholders’ environments.
Still, the first step towards the recognition of the importance of the type of infrastructure to be designed and implemented is visible in the Evaluation.
Instead of having decentralized infrastructure with many differences, having a EU-centralized technical solution with a decentralized management from the Member States open to a multistakeholder usage might lead to a major step. This would already solve a big part of the interoperability issues in a cross-border environment, while still reflecting the needs of the local governments, citizens, and business. The development of more convergent infrastructure and standardized set of rules on process and data structures for the exchange of business information have the potential to avoid the lack of impact of the first Action plan of 1994.
Overall, the transition towards full trans-European public administration virtual environment is not primarily a technical nor technological challenge. And while 18 years ago these technical innovations might also have appeared and indeed have proven as a starting point for a number of technological challenges, also back then there has been a good understanding that this is not all to consider.
This transition is above all an economic and political challenge, which cannot be overcome without strong commitment at the highest political level.
A wishful thinking comes along the creation of the second eGovernment Action Plan9, aiming to realize the ambitious vision contained in the Declaration made at the 5th Ministerial eGovernment Conference. It contributes towards fulfilling two DA key objectives: By 2015, a number of key cross-border services will be available on line – enabling entrepreneurs to set up and run a business anywhere in Europe independently of their original location, and citizens to study, work, reside and retire anywhere in the EU; By 2015, 50% of EU citizens will have used eGovernment services.
This Action Plan doesn’t address only public administrations and EU citizens as in the Bangemann report, but also businesses. Its recognition for them is visible by the goal that 80% of enterprises would have used eGovernment by 2015.
For the first time this strategy really takes into the account the exploitation of results from the concrete eProcurement applications’ domain. In the period 2012- 2014 it aims the roll out cross-border services based on the results of the pilots "Pan-European Public eProcurement On-Line" and "Simple Procedures Online for Cross-border Services".
Also the latest Strategy10 for eProcurement, which however again concerns only one subtype of eGovernment networks, sets a number of legislative conditions. Among the key actions are the full implementation of eProcurement by the EC by mid-2015 (one year before the deadline for governments) and the making of the EC eProcurement solutions available to the Member States that are building their infrastructure, to reduce investment costs.
Last but not least, the DA action Action 88 on the creation and implementation of an ambitious eCommission 2011-2015 action plan reveals a potential to solve a number of past problems. The Communication on the Action Plan explores a number of ambitious sub-actions within defined priority areas to be taken into account.11
1. Bangemann Report, Europe and the Global Information Society, 1994
2. Digital Agenda for Europe: key publications
3. eGovernment in the EC, 2011
4. eGovernment Factsheet - EC - Information Strategy
5. Capitalising on eProcurement: http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/egovernment/policy/impact/eproc/index_en.htm
6. EVALUATION of the 2004 ACTION PLAN FOR ELECTRONIC PUBLIC PROCUREMENT, EC staff working document, October 2010
7. Pillar VII: ICT for Social Challenges
8. Breaking Barriers to eGovernment: Overcoming obstacles to improving European public services, Modinis study, 2007
9. The European eGovernment Action Plan 2011-2015: Harnessing ICT to promote smart, sustainable & innovative Government, 2010
10. Communication from the EC to the EP, the council, the EESC and the Committee of the regions, A strategy for e-procurement, 2012
11. eGovernment Action Plan 2011 – 2015