The third eGovernment Action Plan calls for all public administrations to offer cross-border, personalised and fully digital public services to all EU citizens by 2020. Europe’s digital pioneer, Estonia, is currently making full use of its Presidency of the Council to show how this is done.
Progress stalling due to technical requirements
There are some important basic prerequisites that must be met to achieve a European gigabit society. For example, full broadband coverage must be guaranteed, everyone must have access to the right hardware and they must have digital skills. However, there are serious doubts about this.
Taking Germany as an example, it is doubtful that the grand coalition of CDU and SPD will achieve its goal of ensuring all German homes have internet access of at least 50 megabits per second by 2018. Looking at Europe, it is patently clear that not every household has an internet-enabled end device or some other access to the internet.
There is especially a lot to be done in terms of citizens’ digital skills. The Commission’s own statistics show that 60 million European citizens have never used the internet and that 45% of the EU population do not have sufficient digital skills to do this.
Will citizens be forced to digitalise?
The urgent question is what will happen to certain groups, such as households with financial difficulties, senior citizens, the rural population and people with certain disabilities, who are unable to learn these skills or no longer want to.
Government authorities and certain organisations, such as banks, are increasingly forcing citizens to communicate exclusively via electronic means. Regular mail is no longer an option or costs extra.
For example, the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) surprised Norwegian pensioners at the start of 2017 with its decision to send pension statements in electronic format only, regardless of whether pensioners are set up for electronic communication or not. They have taken up arms against this unpopular ‘forced digitalisation’. However, even if these concerns are addressed, it does not mean the end of the trouble. If a physical statement is sent out, there is a 5€ fee which is borne by the pensioner and not by the Administration.
Consultations on the EU level
Responding to a cross-party question from several MEPs, the Commission made reference to the relevant principles set out in the eGovernment Action Plan. Although one of these principles stipulates that public administrations should primarily deliver their services digitally, it also states that other channels should remain open for those who do not wish to use digital data or are unable to do so. Digital public services should be designed to be inclusive by default and to cater to different needs such as those of elderly people or people with disabilities.
The explanations of the European Parliament and the content of the Action Plan should make it clear that although it is desirable for all EU citizens to exercise their civil rights and obligations digitally, this is not something that they must do.