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The Interoperable Europe Act needs a “Free Software first” approach

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The Interoperable Europe Act (IEA) aims to assist public administration to share, reuse and integrate information technology and data across borders. Clear rules with concrete activities and budget are missing. The role of civil society is overlooked, and there are not yet clear definitions of Free Software and Open Standards.

 EU is aiming to create a dedicated legal framework on interoperability that until now has been non-binding

With the IEA, the EU is aiming to create a dedicated legal framework on interoperability that until now has been non-binding. Interoperability is a core element of the ongoing digitalisation, also of public services. Hence, the interplay among public administration, the private sector, and civil society has to be acknowledged as a crucial component to leading Europe into an interoperable ecosystem.

Although we welcome that the European Commission already acknowledges the importance of Free Software (also known as “Open Source”) and Open Standards for interoperability, they are not clearly defined. Moreover, the current text falls short of recognising the role of other stakeholders in the proposed governance approach, of civil society not only as a provider of expertise but also as a decision-making actor. Lastly, the text remains unclear with regard to concrete activities to promote interoperability and a dedicated budget for such activities.

Let’s make things clearer

Free Software and Open Standards create the conditions for interoperability. Free Software is crucial when building public services that are accessible to everyone across borders and sectors. Open Standards provide the conditions needed for those systems to be able to communicate with each other enabling the free sharing of data. These two prevent lock-in and other artificial barriers to interoperability and promote choice between vendors and technology solutions.

At the moment, Free Software and Open Standards are indicated as factors to enhance interoperability; however clear definitions of such are not given. Until now, the lack of definitions and clear actions has led to loopholes not only in the interpretation but also in the implementation of previous digital initiatives. We, therefore, call upon the legislator to clearly define these two key drivers in this legislation, and take the opportunity to propose specific actions to promote interoperability by making use of them.

Furthermore, Free Software solutions and Open Standards should be considered the default when it comes to interoperable digital solutions, even more so when those are funded by public money. In line with the proposed text, the“Interoperability assessment” can come in handy when a public administration aims to procure a new digital solution. The default should be a digital solution that enhances such interoperability based on Free Software. If this is not the case, public bodies must justify, based on this assessment, the reasons for not arriving at such a decision. The Court of Auditors can play an important role when monitoring such decisions and publishing reports on publicly funded digital systems on a steady basis.

The more the merrier: stakeholder involvement

The main purpose of the public sector is to provide public services that are necessary for the well-being of society. The involvement of different stakeholders in the IEA should not come into question. The interoperability of the public sector involves the sharing of data and information among different public bodies which can raise concerns among the public. Involving others, especially civil society in the decision-making process will not only help to build trust with the public but also ensure that this regulation is guided by democratic and participatory principles.

When it comes to innovation, it is important to bear in mind that numerous non-governmental organisations are often at the forefront of innovation and can offer new ideas and approaches. Innovation doesn’t only happen in the public sector. Therefore, a larger variety of stakeholders must be included as part of this governance workflow, especially civil society actors.

At the moment the engagement of other stakeholders is reduced to the so-called “Interoperable Community”, which aims to provide expertise and input to the actual decision-making body, the “Interoperable Board”. We, therefore, highlight the importance of including others on this board, especially civil society. By allowing a wide community to flourish, the EU could achieve its most ambitious goal of building human-centred digital public services.

“The Interoperable Europe Act is a potential chance the EU has to make a major change in how procurement of digital services is handled. By going in the direction of Free Software first, the EU can assure that tax's payers money is spent in the most efficient way, while it will create the collaborative ecosystem that is needed to achieve interoperability in Europe” explains Lina Ceballos, FSFE Policy Project Manager.

Network of public administrations for re-using solutions

The IEA can be more ambitious in setting up the proper assistance and network that public administrations need for the digital implementation of such legislation. Currently, proposals such as training are included. However, the text fails to address the scope of such training or highlight the dedicated budget needed for it. There is hereof clear importance of training - with a proper budget allocation - for civil servants on Free Software technologies, workflows, and their impact on transparency and trustworthy interoperable digital infrastructure.

Bringing together best practices is also part of this initiative, and it is included as one of the features that the “Interoperable Europe portal” might offer. However, the promotion of the path leading to those good practices is absent. In this regard, more emphasis on the creation, use, and re-use of Free Software solutions could strengthen the collaborative ecosystem that is needed while bringing public administrations closer and enhancing cross-border collaboration.

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring plays a fundamental role within this proposal, especially when it comes to how different member states approach these guidelines. The EU must enable the coordination and knowledge exchange for innovative public procurement procedures among member states, along with proper monitoring and evaluation strategies.

In order to implement proper monitoring and evaluation, the EU needs to make sure to gather and make use of proper indicators and statistics that show first how many of the new digital solutions procured, or in-house developed, have been released under a Free Software licence, and second, how many of the existing digital solutions have migrated into a Free Software solution in order to proceed with the “Interpretability Assessment”.

It is not possible to properly evaluate and monitor if one does not have a clear understanding of the state of play and its fluctuation over time. This will enable accurate oversight of the way public funds are being used. Combining this monitoring with the respective reports from the Code of Auditors both in the Member States and at the EU level will only enrich the procedure.

Conclusion

An open and interoperable digital public sector is critical to addressing the social, economic, and political challenges of democratic nations.

The proposed Interoperable Europe Act has the potential to be a game changer by allowing the EU to lead by example on the digitalisation path without having to reinvent the wheel over and over again. However, concrete activities, along with a dedicated budget, are needed to support member states and local administration all over Europe. Much clearer definitions of the key elements of this digital ecosystem must also be included. If the interoperability of digital public services is to keep the interest of people at its centre, their involvement and agency in such processes must guide these efforts.

This legislation is a potential opportunity to close the existing loopholes as well as define clear monitoring and evaluation indicators while laying the groundwork for the proper budget allocation needed for these efforts. This is, indeed, the legislation where Free Software and Open Standards must lead the way in the design and delivery of accessible and open public digital services.