The European Commission has been too focused on tackling Big Tech and not enough on improving digital services for citizens.
That is according to Poland’s minister of digital affairs, Janusz Cieszyński. He believes the EU needs to shift its digital policy focus to helping Europeans interact with government services.
Speaking to TNW at the recent Tallinn Digital Summit in Estonia, Janusz Cieszyński said that digital ID services that are prevalent in Estonia and increasingly so in Poland under his remit, need to be a higher priority EU-wide.
“There’s a lot of focus on [tech businesses] and there’s not enough focus on legislation which will help citizens, which will help ordinary people for instance to travel around Europe with your ID in your phone,” he said.
“When there was the difficult time of the pandemic, we were able to roll out the Covid certificates very quickly and now we have fallen back asleep, and I don’t think that things are going fast enough.”
Cieszyński leads Poland’s digitisation ministry, including its mObywatel (mCitizen) initiative, which provides a mobile app for users to store their ID documents. The ministry has also updated the app to allow Ukrainian refugees in Poland to upload and store their documents.
He said that while there’s a slew of digitisation efforts across member states, there should be more cohesion on an EU level.
The European Commission has focused heavily on tackling Big Tech with several new regulations.
Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, who delivered a keynote speech at the summit in Tallinn, championed many of these efforts.
This includes the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, two of the European Commission’s flagship tech regulations that it believes will tackle misinformation on social media and create fairer competition in Europe.
“I’m not sure that as a consumer I have seen an improvement during Mr Breton’s tenure as Commissioner,” Cieszyński said.
“It is obvious to me as a person who has supervised numerous rollouts of e-services, that if you would be committed to having an e-ID which would be universal for all European countries and spend five years on this, we would already have been using this for quite some time,” he said.
“I think it’s just [that] the Brussels bureaucracy is too detached from the citizens and their base. I think that’s the thing.”
A spokesperson for the European Commission declined to comment on the minister’s remarks.
Upcoming EU elections may hinder progress
The EU has debated and proposed a unified approach for digital IDs several times over the years.
The Commission proposed legislation for a secure digital ID system in 2021 that would be in effect by 2030.
In June this year, EU member states and the European Parliament reached an agreement on an EU-wide framework for a digital ID that would be interoperable around the bloc.
Now the proposal must weave its way through the usual EU law-making hurdles. With the European Parliament elections next year coinciding with the end of the current Commission’s mandate, it is difficult to affix a timeline for the intended legislation.
The Commission spokesperson did tell TNW that the framework would provide Europeans with “consumer control, security, convenience and privacy.”
“These common European rules will ensure that solutions can be used seamlessly cross-border, also creating new business cases for companies,” they said. “The Commission already started the technical groundwork with Member States to ensure this interoperable, secure, and user-friendly digital personal wallet becomes a reality for citizens.”
The European Commission does have a series of projects involving member states, universities, and private sector companies underway to examine various digital ID use cases in travel, payments, healthcare, and education.
Examples include the European Wallet Consortium (EWC), which is testing interoperable IDs for travel, and Digital Credentials for Europe (DC4EU), which is working with several European universities and government departments to examine how a digital ID for the education sector could work.
Estonia is often held up as a bastion of how to implement digital services.
Since the ‘90s, the Baltic state has developed a digital-first approach to government services with most functions now available online. Most notably, citizens can vote online in elections; in fact, in the 2023 parliamentary elections more than half of the votes were cast over the internet. A forthcoming change in Estonia’s digital policies will allow for the completion of divorce proceedings online.
But pushing that agenda can be challenging.
The government has contracted Estonian IT services firm Nortal to build several of its digital public services.
Chief growth officer Elizabeth Kiehner said that the company is trying to “export” its technology to other countries but there are numerous obstacles to overcome.
“The prerequisite to any of these things working is having a leader with the political will. There could be very little that’s currently digitised but there needs to be a leader with political will and commitment to do this,” she said.
Competing for tech talent
For governments with ambitions to expand digital services, one of the biggest challenges is finding the tech talent it needs.
Cieszyński told TNW that governments must compete for tech talent against the private sector without being able to offer the higher salaries typically expected at bigger tech companies.
It is common for public bodies to outsource development to private companies. However, Cieszyński believes that it is imperative for governments to bring as much tech development in-house as possible.
Government departments and bodies need to know what’s in the “black box” and understand what’s under the hood and how it works.
“You have to remember that this is software that will be used for the processing of government data, of citizen data, super sensitive stuff, and it is also, something which comes to mind very easily in these difficult times, a matter of security. If you don’t know what’s inside this black box, how can you be sure that your citizens, the ones that you’re supposed to protect, are actually protected?” Cieszyński explained.
“We work a lot with vendors. We use modern technology, we buy from the top brands from around the world but we want to have a good proportion of experts that are in-house on our payroll, so that we have the rights to whatever code they write, things like that.”
Currently, Cieszyński’s department has 1,400 people working on e-government services.
Will political mandate cycles shift priorities?
The minister stated that e-government and digital IDs should be front of mind for the next European Commission.
Cieszyński is from Poland’s ruling PiS party, which faces a general election this month where the complexion of the Polish government could change. With that, so could priorities when it comes to digital policies.
As for the European Commission, its mandate is up in less than a year. Rumours abound that Thierry Breton will be seeking the top job of Commission President.
But just what will the next Commission’s priorities be?
During his keynote speech in Tallinn, Breton dropped one or two hints when talking about supercomputers and quantum.
“One of my favourite subjects, quantum. Of course, we are working very hard on quantum computing, quantum communication, quantum sensing and cryptography,” he said. “This is something we will push hard and will be a very interesting subject for the next Commission.”