Is there no unity on digitalisation in EU public bodies?

There is a disjointed approach to government technologies across Europe, and it means the continent is being “left behind” in the race for digitalisation.

This is the opinion of Kim Clausen Agerskov, the Global Head of Business Development for the Public Sector at the Danish IT Consultancy firm Netcompany.

With over a decade of experience in government technologies, Agerskov has seen first-hand that Europe struggles with a tech-repetition problem, impeding real progress.

“Europe right now is being left behind by Chinese and by American [companies] because we are trying to re-invent the wheel in every country,” he explained.

“We need to start sharing a lot more, not only ideas, but also when we do custom solutions, maybe we shouldn’t make everything ourselves, but we should build on 60/70% of what has been done in another country.”

Europe was being outpaced in this area particularly compared to its greatest counterparts and competitors across the Atlantic and in the Far East, he went on to explain.

The American GovTech market was a far more integrated and streamlined system, allowing national, state, and local public bodies to access the latest capabilities to ensure citizens could be served efficiently,” he said, noting that the same was true for Asian markets.

His message was simple: starting a GovTech project from square one in each EU country was not in anyone’s interest, and, with the sheer pace of innovation improving capabilities, hardly ever necessary.

“If you have something [a tech solution] that you can deliver in 10-12 weeks, it’s better than having to start from scratch every time,” he said.

He drew examples from his native Denmark, where Netcompany has grown over more than two decades to be a vital source of tech solutions for the national government.

This is an effort that has paid off. Denmark has shot ahead of its closest rivals in the latter part of the 2010s to become the highest-ranked country in the world for digital government, according to the United Nations.

Doing so, it outperformed other powerful digital centres like Korea, Finland, and Estonia – all thanks to tech innovations that stay ahead of the curve.

“A lot of these solutions are being delivered from Netcompany,” said Agerskov. “We are paying out 75% of all the benefits that are there in Denmark: child, housing, unemployment benefits – they’re quite critical for the welfare society that exists here.”

Netcompany also assists the Danish government with revenue collection, providing tech capabilities that allow the Danish government to process corporate tax and debt claims – all described by Agerskov as being “at the core of what we do.”

“We have built up in all ministries what I would call a ‘feature complete’ GovTech scenario, which means that we do have a GovTech framework that we are using and utilising.” he added.

Here lies the pivotal solution, he went on to explain: the firm has developed over 250 different projects, incorporating over 3,000 components, and all have the potential to be adapted and used elsewhere, helping to solve Europe’s tech repetition problem.

“We can take a solution and work with a government authority to help them,” he explained. “For example, we started building a medical registry in Denmark, and we can take these components and help Norwegian medicine with similar solutions.”

None of these solutions would be carbon copies, he explained, rather they would carry the core innovative elements, complemented with features that mattered in a local context.

In this way, the time taken to develop some of the most crucial, enabling and time-saving digitalisation solutions would be dramatically less than if a company had started from the beginning.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities,” Agerskov said in relation to cross-border work. 

“Looking back, there are a lot of countries and companies that have tried this previously, but I think that they have been aiming to ‘put a solution in a box and give it to someone’.”

Netcompany does not follow this approach, he stressed. The firm avoids the expectation that a company will “make some magic,” out of a tech solution. Rather, it stays in constant contact to ensure a proper solution is built.

“The difference is that you have to make sure that there is room for differences,” he explained. “But ultimately, it’s about embracing similarities, with a sovereign layer on top.”

‘Long-lost siblings’

In November 2021, Netcompany finalised the acquisition of IT solutions firm Intrasoft, based in Luxembourg, and founded in 1996.

The merger meant Netcompany took on board around 2,500 employees working in 13 countries, a legacy that involves over 500 organisational clients and revenue of nearly €200 billion.

The merger allowed for geographical unity. While Netcompany has been historically focused on northern Europe, Intrasoft’s main presence was in Benelux, southern Europe, and the UK & Ireland. 

The merger allowed an almost perfect complementary joining of the two firms – their only overlap being around 20 staff from the two organisations who were simultaneously based in Denmark.

Considering the total workforce of thousands, this tiny amount of crossover meant the merger “made sense,” Agerskov said, describing the desire for such a move as “mutual.”

“These were our ‘long-lost siblings’ from Belgium and Luxembourg,” he said. “We already knew them, and the way of working was quite similar. We knew the integration would be quite simple.”

“They ad a variety of govtech platforms that we didn’t have in our portfolio, some of them core customs solutions, others were core banking solutions. They had quite nice platforms that could help our government even more.”

Now that the capabilities of both firms have come together, Agerskov says Netcompany has a “full set of EU solutions,” that can specifically lead European clients down the right road towards digitalisation.

Securing democracy in Europe

A “little crown jewel,” in Netcompany’s portfolio is its history of providing tech solutions that help manage Danish elections.

“It’s the core of our democracy,” Agerskov says. “Doing elections and moving into making sure you have secure and trustworthy voting is very, very exciting.”

Denmark, like most of Europe, uses proportional representation. In other words, parties receive a percentage of parliamentary seats roughly the same as the percentage of people who supported them at the ballot box.

In Denmark, this is decided through the “party list” method, and Netcompany’s involvement is based around replacing systems that count votes, as well as verifying that any potential candidates are “ready and capable,” to be running in elections.

“A lot of this is around digitalisation,” Agerskov said. “It’s not going to be purely digitalised elections yet, but this is the infrastructure – the glue around things to make sure that you can run elections.”

He added that these solutions provided “great opportunities,” to other public bodies running elections across Europe: an area that, in general, was in great need of a “digital uplift.”

However, one issue that the firm constantly kept in mind while developing electoral infrastructure was the issue of security.

Digitalised electoral systems would mean little if the public who used them didn’t trust them to deliver fair results. It’s especially true now, as election integrity remains a hot topic in global politics.

“You have to be humble around the security on this,” Agerskov warned. “Because security is the key element in making sure we trust the election.”

But there was a benefit, he said, in the fact that much of Europe decided elections in largely similar ways, once again offering an opportunity for collaboration across borders, rather than starting from scratch each time.

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