The Interoperable Europe Act proposal

On 18 November 2022, the European Commission adopted the Interoperable Europe Act proposalandits accompanyingCommunication to strengthen cross-border interoperability and cooperation in the public sector across the EU. The proposal follows other political communications from the European Commission, such as the 2017Tallinn Declaration on eGovernment, the conclusions of the European Council of 9 June 2020 on Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, and the 2020 Berlin Declaration on Digital Society and Value-Based Digital Government, which point out to the need of ensuring interoperability to support the exchange of data, guarantee digital sovereignty, and strengthen the resilience of the public sector. Bolstering the interoperability of public services in Europe is also part of the work on the Commission’s priority to create A Europe fit for the digital ageand it is enshrined in the Communication on ‘2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade’, a policy programme guiding Europe’s digital transformation.

Notwithstanding the fact that interoperability has been explicitly mentioned as a precondition for numerous EU policies, such a topic had not yet been addressed by binding overarching EU policy provisions. Therefore, the Interoperable Europe Act proposal aims to fill this gap. A coherent approach towards interoperability is key and especially relevant for the successful implementation of several EU digital policies and funding programmes, such as the Single Digital Gateway and the once-only principle, the Regulation on the free flow of non-personal data (FFD), as well as the EU Cybersecurity Act and the Open Data Directive.

Therefore, the proposed Regulation aims to tackle the limited interoperability of networks and information systems that are currently supporting digital public services in the EU. These limitations were, until now, caused by several factors, such as an absence of common minimum interoperability specifications, shared solutions, and standards, as well as the lack of an ‘interoperability by default’ approach in the design and implementation of EU policies. Overall, these problem drivers increase costs and administrative burden and reduce efficiencies at all levels of public administrations across Europe. They also delay the implementation of European policies by the Member States and the accomplishment of the Digital Single Market. Therefore, it is expected that the entry into force of the Interoperable Europe Act will help overcome these challenges and strengthen cross-border interoperability and cooperation in the public sector throughout the EU.

Aiming towards cross-interoperability

By advancing a proposal on an Interoperable Europe Act, the European Commission aims for ‘a reinforced EU governments’ interoperability strategy to ensure coordination and common standards for secure and borderless public sector data flows and services’[1]. More specifically, the proposal lays down three specific objectives:

  • ensuring a consistent, human-centric EU approach to interoperability from policymaking to policy implementation;
  • establishing an interoperability governance structure designed to enable public administrations from all levels and sectors, as well as private stakeholders, to work together;
  • co-creating an ecosystem of interoperability solutions for the EU’s public sector, so that public administrations at all levels in the EU and other stakeholders can contribute to and re-use such solutions, innovate together and create public value.

In a constantly changing and evolving world where processes are increasingly automated and digital technologies become part of public administrations, it is crucial that public administrations remain capable of communicating with each other, also in the context of mitigating increasing cybersecurity risks. This cannot be ensured solely by technical means: there is the need to have agreements and established processes between all the layers of an organisation, aligned data descriptions, and laws that allow for those data exchanges and structured long-term cooperation. For these reasons, not only it is important to adopt legislation on interoperability at the EU level, but it is essential that interoperability is recognised not just as a technical issue, but one that involves several fields, such as semantic, organisational and legal interoperability, as the term ‘cross-interoperability’ entails.

What does the Interoperable Europe Act presupposes for NIFO?

In an effort to put emphasis on solutions for public administrations across Europe that consider all levels of interoperability, the Interoperable Europe Act proposal provides for the review of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), which was first formulated in 2004 (and last updated in 2017) and whose implementation at Member State level is monitored by the National Interoperability Framework Observatory(NIFO). The EIF puts forward 47 concrete recommendationson how to improve governance of public administrations’ interoperability activities, establish cross-organisational relationships, streamline processes supporting end-to-end digital services, and ensure that both existing and new legislation do not compromise interoperability efforts. By following such recommendations, Member States follow a common approach to allow their public administrations to reach the same level of digitalisation.

Applying the EIF recommendations is an example of interoperability in practice since, in this way, Member States not only ensure that their public services are accessible within their national borders, but also across countries and policy areas. By doing so, public administrations would be able to save time, reduce costs, increase transparency, and improve the quality of the services that they offer to their citizens and businesses.

Due to its non-technical approach and voluntary participation, the EIF has proven to be a useful instrument to raise awareness on interoperability beyond technical audiences. However, in its current state it is not frequently referenced in EU policies and public administrations across the EU could benefit from a reinforced EIF that is more closely linked to EU sectorial policies and provides more pragmatic and operational guidance. Consequently, the European Commission is currently discussing how the EIF could be improved.

What actions for the future?

With the introduction of the Interoperable Europe Act proposal, the European Commission has committed to provide training material on the use of the EIF and on Interoperable Europe solutions. Similarly, it aims to put in place a ‘peer review’ system aimed at supporting Member States to perform interoperability assessments and implement Interoperable Europe solutions in their network and information systems, among others. This work has already begun with the recent publication of an EIF training material slide-deck, in English as well as in four other European languages[2], which is a reference document meant to provide guidance and support to the 27 EU Member States as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Ukraine on how to improve the interoperability of their public services and interoperability in general. In addition to this supporting material, the organisation of dedicated working meetings with selected Member States is also foreseen, in order to help those public administrations that are lagging behind in terms of digitalisation and interoperability, improve their scores on the EIF, and interoperability more broadly.

Furthermore, the Commission’s proposal suggests the creation of an Interoperable Europe portal in which the necessary knowledge around interoperability and the respective solutions, especially among non-IT experts, will be developed. Communication and cooperation are, in fact, essential elements for interoperability and it is important to have a one-stop-shop to support trusted exchanges of information in a common place where all public administrations can find supporting material. The establishment of an Interoperable Europe Board, co-owned by the Member States and the European Commission, and supported by public and private actors, has also been proposed.

Other recommendations and actions, beyond those put forward in the proposal, would encompass the continuation of the discussions on the European Interoperability Framework for Smart Cities and Communities(EIF4SCC). Its objective is to provide leaders of local EU administrations with definitions, principles, recommendations, practical use cases on interoperability, drawn from cities and communities from around Europe and beyond, along the lines of the EIF, as well as a common model to facilitate the delivery of services to the public across domains, cities, regions and borders. The EIF4SCC would represent a first step for interoperability at the local/micro level and would enhance the role of cross-interoperability across sectors.

In the coming years, the EU will have to drive and ensure a paradigm change in how its citizens, public administrations and institutions interact, not only to ensure interoperability across all levels of government and across public services but also to guarantee the proper level of digitalisation of European public administrations to face the forthcoming technological changes.