A new version of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) – was it worth waiting for?

10 April 2017

Author: administrator

I have been involved (in a previous life) as manager of the team responsible for the implementation of the predecessors of the present ISA2 programme, in the conception and promotion of previous versions of the document. And, having retired from the Commission in 2012, I have since then been following (as an outside observer) the Commission’s initiatives in the eGovernment area, of which interoperability is a corner-stone.

On March 23, the European Commission published a new version of the European Interoperability Framework (a good-looking version of the framework can be found here), together with an “Interoperability Action Plan”. Both are “staff working papers”, annexed to the Communication of the Commission on the Implementation Strategy of the EIF.

The present EIF document is the third one which bears this name. The first was published by the IDA programme in 2004 (and is still available here). That document was co-authored by eGovernment experts from the Commission and from the Member States and became very widely known as having put the concept of interoperable eGovernment services on the map.

That document indeed became famous, because of its definition of “open standards” and its suggestion that governments should not use IT standards that are not freely available to everybody to implement. The definition was timely in that eGovernment services were then more and more being developed using Internet-related technologies – which are designed to be interoperable – instead of being based on proprietary, non-interoperable platforms. After a couple of years, Member States suggested that the document should be given some official status. The preparation of the second version (that can be found here) proved to be a long and difficult process, during which powerful lobby groups did everything they could to weaken the text on ‘open standards’. In the final text of the second version, although the spirit of open standards remained, the wording was very much less clear and open to different implementations (and misuse).

With the arrival of the Juncker Commission, the “Digital Agenda” was replaced as the official overall ICT-related policy framework by the “Digital Single Market”, and the suggestion to develop a new version of the EIF was included in the big plan. Rewording a document to place it in the context of a new overall policy often is mostly a cosmetic operation, but this update of the EIF was seen as a bigger job, and a draft was published for comments last year.

In that draft, the structure of the earlier versions was largely preserved, as were the underlying eGoverment services model and the set of guiding principles which formed the starting point for the formulation of a list of recommendations (which only seems to grow more with every version of the document). However, there was one notable exception: the underlying idea of openness, of which sharing and re-use, data portability and the use of open standards are all consequences, and which was omni-present in earlier versions of the EIF, was gone. Many organisations reacted to the draft, and the removal of the openness idea was a great concern (see here for the reaction of OpenForum Europe).

It was a great pleasure to see that in the version that has now been published, the principle of openness and its consequences have re-appeared, albeit expressed in terms that are just as confusing as in the second version. But at least the principle is still there.

That said (and notwithstanding the weakness of the statement on open standards), I like the new version. Relatively little new thinking is reflected in the document – as an example, although the arrival of new technologies was given as one of the reasons for reviewing the document, I note that cloud computing, together with the Internet of Things, Big Data and Software-as-a-Service are only mentioned once, in a single short footnote. However, this document is very clearly structured, and most recommendations are logical conclusions of the reasoning in the text.

I am not sure what to think of the strategy published in the Communication and of which more detail is given in the “Interoperability Action Plan”. We should all applaud all actions that help raise awareness of the importance of interoperability when defining and implementing eGovernment solutions; this for me is the main reason for the existence of the ISA programme and its predecessors. But I fail to grasp the purpose of defining 22 action points, each without any concrete end goal, and all running over the period 2017/2018 to 2020 under the shared responsibility of the Commission and the Members States. Good luck to the poor Commission staff members who, a couple of years from now, will need to write a report to “demonstrate” the success of this action plan.

Conclusion: After more than 15 years of activities around interoperability and eGovernment services, the same principles which were formulated in the last century are still relevant and most of the problems identified back then remain unsolved. Each of the versions of the EIF differs in wording and style, but most of the underlying ideas remain the same. That should not stop the present team from continuing to work with the Member States on raising awareness and on sharing good insights and working solutions. Keep up the good work!

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