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A Digital Backbone for a Citizens’ Europe

Dorothee Bär |
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Dorothee Bär

Europe must now also be a pioneer for the digital age, not only in terms of economy and technology, but also in protecting the rights and interests of citizens. Europe must be a role model and a force for unity.

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We find ourselves in the midst of a digital revolution and the rate of upheaval is accelerating. Technological progress is happening so quickly that political actors genuinely struggle to shape it or to even keep pace. Representatives of authoritarian regimes, in particular, have pitied the slowness of our political system, which – they claim – deprives us of many, if not all, avenues for remaining internationally competitive.

This discussion deals with two distinct issues. On the one hand, it is about economic and technological leadership in the digital age. On the other, it is about the political supremacy of rivalling systems. Of course, the two elements are linked: economic power brings political influence. A perfectly conceived political system that fails to prove or assert itself on the contested international stage will die a virtuous death.

Europe has a clear mission in this regard. We are committed to policies that revolve around the best interests of individuals, not those of large corporations or the state.

Europe must harness the possibilities of digitalisation. We must understand that digitalisation is a potent tool – it is neither inherently good nor bad. It all depends on why digital tools are being employed. We must harness the opportunities of digitalisation in order to bring out the best in our democratic constitutional states and to make them more efficient. And these are the very issues we must emphasise more strongly within the Open Government Partnership.

To start with, we must explore the areas in which digitalisation can help increase public trust in the state’s capabilities. Currently, it is almost exclusively corporations that are building entire digital empires and setting the benchmark for the possibilities of digital technologies. Numerous goods and services can now be ordered in a single tap on a smartphone. The state is also a digital service provider: applying for child and parental benefits, registering a new business, or changing your home address are all possible online. These tasks ought to be as easy as ordering a toothbrush online. There is untapped potential to significantly improve efficiency and provide added value to citizens and businesses who would no longer need to wait for appointments in the long corridors of government agencies. We need a single digital gateway: a unified access point for administrative services. We need fully digitalised application processes. In Germany, we are working hard to achieve this. Studies show that a well-functioning digital administration improves citizens’ perception of the state by a factor of ten*. We must use that to our advantage.

Secondly, we must ensure that digital technologies reinforce our values rather than undermine them. Take artificial intelligence, for example. We cannot afford to lose control of decisions that affect our citizens. Principles such as protection for minorities, gender equality, advocacy for the socially disadvantaged, and equal consideration for urban and rural areas must be imprinted in the DNA of any artificial intelligence. That is precisely what “AI made in Europe” ought to stand for. This is also why Germany appointed a Data Ethics Commission to examine the ethical scope and constraints of digital data management. Digitalisation does not mean betraying our values in favour of technical possibilities. On the contrary, technology must be deployed to reinforce European values in the digital age.

Thirdly, we must harness the potential of Open Data even more extensively. Data is the raw material of digitalisation. In the global playing field, we should make it much easier for our companies to draw on data that has already been compiled by the state and develop business models and applications that benefit citizens. Take, for example, state-gathered weather data. This is now publicly available and is used pro-actively by winter gritting and salting services and by storm early warning systems. When dealing with personal data, a person’s sovereignty over their own data inevitably takes priority. In many cases, however, it suffices to use completely anonymised data. Consider the possibilities for AI-assisted medical diagnostics via millions of radiological scans to identify the tell-tale symptoms of diseases. The benefit to individual patient health care would be staggering.

At the same time, however, we must not let corporations dominate political discourse or let them set the standards. An important step in the right direction is a more transparent policy-making process. It is crucial for draft legislation and trade associations’ opinions, for example, to be publicly available. In so doing, we can strengthen trust in the democratic processes that shape public opinion. Whenever possible, we must pre-emptively deflate fake news and conspiracy theories.

These examples demonstrate that the pressure on our rule-of-law-based democratic states within the competitive international landscape has not been caused by digitalisation itself, but by our slowness to take its tools into our own hands.

Europe has always been ahead of the curve. Europe must now also be a pioneer for the digital age, not only in terms of economy and technology, but also in protecting the rights and interests of citizens. Europe must be a role model and a force for unity. In the digital age, more so than ever, size matters. To that end, we will need new global alliances. The EU is only the start. The tools for “digitalisation made in Europe” have long been in place. Let us come together and take them into our own hands! A virtuous death is not an option.

* McKinsey (June 2018) „Der Bürger im Mittelpunkt: Mehr Vertrauen in Behörden durch ein besseres Bürgererlebnisitel“. https://www.mckinsey.de/publikationen/buergerzufriedenheit-zufriedenheit-schafft-vertrauen

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