Government digital strategy: From leader to backseat

By drs. Joep Janssen RE MIM

The policy regarding digital government has largely been driven by the Netherlands' own vision and developments. In the government's digital agenda, I primarily see a Dutch perspective and almost no orientation towards developments in neighboring countries and the European Union. Even in election programs, I see a strong focus on a Dutch vision of digital government and very little consideration for developments in neighboring countries and the European Union.

Gaia-X omarmen: naar een veerkrachtige digitale toekomst in Europa

Undoubtedly, the Netherlands has taken significant steps in the field of digitization over the past decades. However, this has resulted in a substantial "legacy" of partial solutions and standalone systems. This is not surprising when you're a pioneer and the first to embark on new concepts. But those times are gone. Technological development continues to advance, and the Netherlands must ensure it doesn't fall behind.

A good example is the Netherlands' position in the realm of cloud computing. The government has always been cautious about using public cloud services offered by the private sector, where data and computing power are handed over to an external entity, and the government has limited control over the location of data. There are valid reasons for this caution, particularly concerning American cloud providers (including Google, Microsoft, Amazon), who offer their services with their own rules that can be debated. While Americans certainly deliver quality and flexibility, it comes at the expense of European "digital sovereignty."

Especially for the core processes of government, where sensitive personal data of citizens is processed, this caution is understandable. Often, these processes involve customized solutions that cannot be easily provided by standard cloud services. Therefore, the Dutch central government still largely relies on its own data centers (the Government Data Centers, ODCs) from which private cloud services can be offered. However, a true "government cloud" has never really materialized. The promises of increased flexibility, improved quality, and reduced costs have not been fully realized or only to a limited extent. There is also no comprehensive plan to achieve this through ODCs.

At the same time, we see neighboring countries like Germany and France making more use of public cloud services. The key is making good agreements. Gaia-X is an example of the latter, where France and Germany have taken the initiative along with German and French internationally active companies.

Gaia-X should not create a separate cloud company or a European cloud provider but should lead to a certification mark. A certification mark that demonstrates companies keep their stored data in Europe, securely store it, and can easily transfer it to another provider. Gaia-X aims for more data sovereignty, data portability, and more opportunities for European countries to work with cloud services from other European countries. The strategic agenda of the Dutch central government shows that the Dutch government is still cautious. It does facilitate participation from a central role but does not take on a leading national role. Some caution is certainly warranted. Nobody wants a grandiose project with mainly symbolic value. Few parties are eager to invest heavily in a service whose future success is far from certain and which currently has relatively little support from other countries. Waiting on the sidelines is not an option either. There is also an impression that the involved French and German companies are primarily focused on imposing their own standards, essentially giving them a technological advantage over competing parties from other European countries. This results in fewer opportunities and a lack of a level playing field for smaller Dutch cloud service providers. Only by joining the initiative as the Netherlands can you make substantive contributions and exercise your voting rights. National solutions for cloud computing are no longer in line with the times.

At this stage, consumers of cloud services are hardly involved, if at all. We only see activist suppliers, while consumers should be setting the tone. Here lies an excellent challenge for the Dutch government to take an active role in this debate, in collaboration with other European consumers, and actively seek cooperation with other European consumers.

My advice? Netherlands, get involved and demonstrate that you can be an active and "activist" player, working your way back into a leading role in digitization.

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