The conference was opened by the Swedish Minister for Local Government and Financial Markets, Mats Odell. The Swedes are it seems very much aligned with the principles of transparency, participation and empowerment, that I have come here to promote. It was the first time I heard a government minister call upon the audience to publish as much as you can and use the hashtag egov2009 to make it findable. The conference website incorporated a live Twitter feed, and the plenary sessions were streamed live on the web. I thought, highly sceptical as I am of these large scale EU gatherings, that was an encouraging sign. Minister Odell does not use Twitter or Facebook himself but his general secretary does (here he clearly explains why).
In contrast the EU Ministerial Declaration on eGov (PDF) was rather disappointing to me, with vague language and without clear targets. I think it clearly lacks leadership where leadership is much needed. Especially if you compare it to earlier draft versions where phrases like ‘publishing in machine readable formats’ were in the text. All of that apparently disappeared on Wednesday when the final text was drafted. What’s left is a declaration that hardly contains anything new, and basically only reaffirms what was already in the EU Directive on Public Service Information from 2003. Its intentions are great but the Visby Agenda, adopted last week, which covers the entire ICT policy of the EU has more meat to it, I think. (Also see this review of the Ministerial Declaration)
Throughout the conference, as noted by an official of the EC I talked to, there was a lot of talk about social networks and web 2.0 (next to electronic identity), for the first time on an event like this he said. I later talked to a Swedish guy from the IT industry who thought that there was way too much talk about social networking and web 2.0, which he regarded as a turn for the worse.
Indeed it was the Industry Declaration, read after the EU Declaration, that I thought was the most awful contribution to the conference. Instead of pointing to a clear way forward, DigitalEurope (no website it seems, odd) demonstrated the industry, or at least the part of IT it says it represents, lacks vision. The very clear key message was ‘thanks for all the funding you provided in years past, please keep on giving us more’. At least it was transparent, I have to give them that. It was a major piece of sucking up to the European Commission, and I was relieved when the moderator cut the speaker short as soon as time was up.
‘I’ve only got two more slides’. Whatever.
While the Vice President of the European Commission stated in his opening words he was pleased to see that not only industry but also citizens had drafted an accompanying declaration to the EU one, it was the Industry Declaration that was part of the opening plenary session, while the Open Declaration was part of the last parallel session on the last day of the conference. Nevertheless I think it was already a great step that a citizen declaration was part of the proceedings.
To my ears the word citizens on this eGov conference was too often replaced with the word ‘users’ and ‘consumers’, betraying technological focus and approaches where people are just the means, not the goal. DigitalEurope seems to believe they are the conduit between government and citizens and vice versa, but I rather speak to my government directly. It was good to hear Minister Mats Odell say in his closing statement that the EU needs to take up the challenge issued by the Open Declaration.
In parallel to the conference William Heath and Donagh organized ‘Malmö ’09‘ a barcamp style meet-up of EU citizens around eGov. Meeting up at Thursday evening they brought together pertinent works of art. Donagh provided input in the form of personal opinions of EU citizens around different questions concerning the EU, identity, and eGov. We also started to compare the language in all three declarations, the Visby Agenda, and the White House memorandum on transparency as published by the US administration. That’s something for a later posting. On Friday morning the group worked this into a set of statements and suggestions for EU eGov policy.
During the conference the finalists for the EU eParticipation awards presented themselves. I visited some of them and came away with several inspiring examples, technological, but more importantly also on a human level. That too, is something for a different posting.
What became apparent to me on this conference, and what popped up in different conversations with people here from both government, industry and citizenry, is that we need the EU equivalent of a Sunlight Foundation. To consistently lobby for transparency, participation and empowerment of citizens on the EU level. Building blocks for that are already apparent in the Netherlands, Germany, UK, Denmark, and elsewhere. I think we need to start combining those building blocks and turn it into a European effort.