December 19, 2018

Who is tasked with digitizing the public sector?

Everyone is talking about digitization. The state bears a special responsibility here. Digitization means connecting formerly independent processes and institutions via digital means. This requires “interfederal” ways of cooperation. This article presents the national players which have taken center stage in this process: the Swiss Informatics Conference, E-Government Switzerland, eOperations Switzerland AG and the associations eCH and eJustice.CH.

Digitization is a hot topic. The public sector, which provides jobs for hundreds of thousands of people at communal, cantonal and federal level and is responsible for a third of the gross domestic product, has a dual responsibility: firstly because of its sheer size, secondly, and even more importantly, because it determines the design of the public (digital) infrastructure and services. The more consistent public digitization is, the more comprehensive it will be in the private sector. With the signing of the Tallinn Declaration in 2017, the Federal Council expressed its will on the international stage to press ahead with digitization at full speed. If implemented consistently, the principles laid down therein will lead to far-reaching changes in the way the state is organized and provides its services to citizens, businesses and other non-governmental institutions. For example, the “once only” principle means that each data point only has to be reported to the state once. Today’s reality is a different one: the state constantly requests the same information – at different federal levels and from different departmental units.

Digitization is nothing new in itself. The state has been using information technology for decades. Originally as a tool for internal local work, then also for cooperation between individual offices and finally for e-government services, i.e. electronic interaction with non-state actors. Due to Switzerland’s federal structures, these digitization steps were mainly carried out autonomously by the respective units, resulting in a digital reproduction of communal and cantonal diversity. However, it was recognized at an early stage that a global view must be maintained for certain topics.

To this end, the Swiss Informatics Conference (SIK) was founded in 1975. From the outset, the Conference of Cantonal Finance Directors, the CH-Foundation, the Confederation and the majority of the cantons were involved. Meanwhile, all the cantons and the Principality of Liechtenstein have joined the SIK and the communes are automatically members of the SIK via the cantons. A number of public enterprises and corporations are also members. From a legal point of view, the SIK is a public corporation with limited legal personality. Its work is led by a Board of Directors, which is supported by a working conference, various working groups and a specialist committee. The Confederation, cantons and municipalities are represented equally in the various committees, as are representatives of associations and IT service providers with observer status who are close to the state. The main function of the SIK is to promote the exchange of information on IT topics and to coordinate cooperation. For example, it concludes agreements with suppliers and service providers on behalf of its members, so that they can procure on better terms.

To expand e-government services, the Confederation, cantons and municipalities have been running the “E-Government Switzerland Suisse Svizzera” (E-Government Switzerland) programme since 2008. The basis for this is a framework agreement in which the Confederation and the cantons commit themselves equally to providing CHF 5 million annually in funds. Additional partners are the Swiss Association of Municipalities (Schweizerische Gemeindeverband ) and the Swiss Association of Cities and Towns (Schweizerische Städteverband). The organization E-Government Switzerland consists of three bodies; it has no legal personality. The Steering Committee is chaired by the Head of the Federal Department of Finance and is made up mainly of political representatives of the federal, cantonal, city and municipal authorities. The Steering Committee takes strategic decisions and is equally responsible for their implementation. The Planning Committee is responsible for the operational management of E-Government Switzerland. The members of the Planning Committee are e-government experts from the three levels of government. The office is administratively managed by the federal IT steering body, but financed by the Confederation and the cantons.

By 2015, 59 projects had been advanced within the framework of E-Government Switzerland, 26 of which had been completed. The spectrum of topics ranged from the electronic submission of building applications to the fulfilment of reporting obligations in the agricultural sector via the Internet to cloud computing for public authorities. Since 2017, a priority plan has defined which e-government projects are supported by E-Government Switzerland. The current version for the years 2018 and 2019 defines in addition to operational objectives also measures for 9 strategic projects and 4 strategic services. With regard to actors of national importance in the e-government sector, the following should be given special attention: Development of eOperations Switzerland (strategic project 5), eCH and eJustice.CH (strategic services 2 and 4).

The SIK and E-Government Switzerland primarily perform coordination tasks; they have neither the financial means nor the legal structures required for the establishment and long-term operation of e-government services. In order to close this gap, eOperations Switzerland Ltd. was founded by SIK in mid-2018. The majority of shares are still held by SIK, but in the meantime a good 20 cantons and several cities have acquired stakes in eOperations Switzerland. According to the articles of incorporation, the circle of shareholders is limited to public bodies. eOperations Switzerland consists of the bodies typical of public limited companies; the president of the board of directors is currently the president of SIK. eOperations Switzerland provides services exclusively for the public sector. Beside supporting services like demand analysis and service marketing or bookkeeping and administration, eOperations Switzerland also operates services. The first service is eUmzugCH, various other projects are being planned.

An important aspect for electronic cooperation between government agencies and communication with citizens and businesses is that it operates on the basis of common standards. The definition, maintenance, further development and publication of e-government standards has been the responsibility of the non-profit association eCH since 2002. The association’s members are companies, individual members and organizations from the public sector and science; the president comes from the ranks of the federal IT steering body. Since the foundation of the association, more than 200 e-government standards have been formulated in various working groups. The members participate on a voluntary basis, eGovernment Switzerland contributes to covering the costs within the framework of the strategic service 2.

All state conduct requires a legal basis, and at the same time most state acts have legal force, whether in connection with judicial or administrative proceedings. The non-profit association eJustice.CH has the task of making IT usable in the administration of justice. The association goes back to the Swiss Legal Database Association, founded in 1985. It is chaired by the Director of the Federal Office of Justice. Its members are judicial authorities at federal and cantonal level, associations, legal practitioners, leading service providers and interested private individuals. As part of E-Government Switzerland’s strategic service 4, eJustice.CH coordinates legal issues in the e-government environment and offers authorities free initial legal advice.

By Dr. rer. publ. Rolf J. Rauschenbach

This article was originally published in German in bundesRUNDSCHAU.