Online availability of public services: how is Europe progressing?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Member states are steadily moving more public services on-line, with new members catching up quickly. But progress needs to accelerate. The e-government benchmarking report prepared by Capgemini for DG Information Society examines the availability of government-related on-line services throughout the EU. 

Member States are gradually moving more public services on to the web, but with only 40% of these services fully transactional, there is some way to go before Europe has a high level of genuine on-line functionality. The situation of the new Member States is very satisfactory, corresponding, on average, to where the EU-15 were two years ago. Estonia is already ahead of all but the leading established Member States.

Greater progress has been made in the level of on-line sophistication of internet-based services, than in providing services which are fully functional. Services targeted at business are more advanced than those aimed at citizens, both in terms of sophistication and full on-line functionality. In addition, over twice as many public services are fully available for businesses (at 58%) than for citizens (27%).

Money makes the web go round

Income generating services, such as tax collection, are the most commonly available on the internet. Caution needs to be exercised in comparing performance across countries. One of the public services least widely available on-line is for businesses to make social contribution payments for employees – this is partly because this service is only relevant in some Member States.

Other variations in service availability show that statistical data submission is much more likely to function on the internet than is car registration, or change of address notification. Job search services are particularly likely to be fully functional on-line.

Sweden and Austria are the best performing Member States, both in terms of sophistication and full service availability. The countries with the lowest scores are Latvia, Poland and EU neighbour Switzerland. Luxembourg scores the lowest amongst the EU-15.

Virtual differences

Several Member States are rapidly migrating their public services to the internet. Sweden has moved from having 28% of public services fully available on-line in 2001, to 74% by October 2004. Austria, in the same period, increased from 15% to 72%. In contrast, during those same years, Portugal went from 32% to just 40% and, in the process, dropped from being one of the top performing nations to near the bottom of the list.

In some cases, moving services to the web can involve a comprehensive re-engineering of a public service. Malta still requires claimants for unemployment benefit to initially present themselves for interview, to restrict opportunities for identity fraud, but subsequent weekly claimant registration is conducted electronically at district offices using a biometric finger scan. The new procedure has reduced abuses and is considered very successful.

Several countries have reorganised service provisions so that citizens no longer need to apply for welfare payments or, in the case of Finland, to file tax returns, because the information is collated on-line from other declarations.

Despite major improvements over recent years, web-based service availability tends to peak at about 80%. Several factors can cause lower levels of on-line service provision in some Member States. Security concerns and detailed regulations can also be an impediment. Where countries have federated structures, these reduce the opportunity for national programmes. The changing role of the state from direct provider of services to contract purchaser can lower its ability to control service delivery channels.


Read the whole e-government benchmarking report