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Moving towards a Digital Europe, together

Author:
Valdek Laur, Adviser for Digital Solutions of the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU

The Estonian Presidency of the Council of the European Union has been characterised by its emphasis on digital issues. The notable advancement of the Digital Single Market Strategy, as well as for efforts to debate larger digitalisation issues during the Tallinn Digital Summit. However, Estonia’s efforts to promote digitalisation were also reflected in more down-to-earth and practical solutions, by simplifying and digitising the internal processes of the Presidency for those of the future.

In cooperation with the Council of the European Union and other institutions, many forward-looking projects were introduced, started and finished, including the electronic signing of an EU legal act for the first time. The foundation was set to make future presidencies more cost effective and similar, and the first result is that of the Informal Presidency Portal, which gets most of its features from a solution called the Presidency Gateway that was developed for the Estonian Presidency. Many other ideas to ease the work of delegates, such as a single login for delegates, the introduction of electronic signatures, the digitalisation of travel expense forms, and a secure cross member state information exchange were presented and used. Little by little, Estonia has been showing that going digital is quicker, easier and more cost effective.

Digital event management

Adopting digital solutions has been a step-by-step process for the presidencies of the Council of the European Union. During previous presidencies, there has been no unified solution for informal meetings; which meant that a new solution was developed by each new presidency. Such solutions don’t come cheaply, and redoing the same work each and every time didn’t seem a reasonable practice.

The issue was apparent before the Estonian Presidency began and there was strong agreement that a unified digital solution was needed. Thus, preparations were started for the Presidency Portal to be built. As the development cycle of such an ambitious IT project is counted in years rather than months, it was apparent that an intermediate solution was needed for the Estonian Presidency. Work on the Presidency Portal continued as a joint effort between Estonia, Bulgaria, and Austria.

The portal used for Estonian Presidency events was called the Presidency Gateway, and it served as the main digital tool for managing the informal presidency meetings in Estonia. The Presidency Gateway is a web-based solution, but as it is also mobile-responsive it is usable on all devices and does not necessitate any extra requirements or add-ons. The Presidency Gateway is linked to the accreditation system, serves as a document depository, agenda and logistical management system, and also offers digital tools for making polls and group tasks during presidency events.

Adopting digital solutions goes hand-in-hand with customer support, as all new things take time to get used to. Such was also the case with the Presidency Gateway.

“During the busiest times of July and September, the customer support phone was ringing constantly. In many cases the callers just needed confirmation that what they were doing was correct,” noted Kaisa Einsok, the Presidency Gateway project manager.

“But a lot of positive feedback were also received from the delegates, who applauded the idea of making everything available digitally and pointed out that this is how e-governance should work,” she added. The Presidency Gateway was used for about 175 events, with about 8 500 users.

The source code of the Presidency Gateway will also be made available for the next presidencies should they want to use this solution during the time that the Presidency Portal is still being created. However, once the official Presidency Portal (developed by the General Secretariat of the Council in close collaboration with Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria) is fully functional, it will be the main IT-portal for all of the upcoming presidencies, offering the same possibilities as the Presidency Gateway, as well as expanding to help manage all informal meetings.

It’s the little things that count

While it is always attractive to talk about big revolutionary changes; it is often the little things that can help change our lives for the better by optimising simple everyday routines that have gotten stuck in the past. One such instance was that of reporting the presence and travel expenses of delegates visiting work groups in Brussels, which required filling out and sending a number of papers during and after the work group.

For those involved, this process was known as ’green and yellow papers’, according to the colours of the papers that needed to be filled out and reported. Starting with a pilot phase in December 2017, this process shall also be available digitally. This means that delegates no longer need to declare their visits on paper, but can do so using the appropriate service in the Delegates Portal. As the process is simplified, it helps save time and, of course, the environment.

Another seemingly small but significant change related to logging in to EU services. Namely, an EU Login Service was implemented into the Delegates Portal and to the upcoming Presidency Portal.

This means that logging in can now be done using national ID-cards. In practice, this makes logging in much safer and easier. Users will no longer need to remember yet another password for their login, and can instead use the same pin code they use for all other services that can be accessed via an ID-card. Also, more importantly, logging in with an ID-card is much safer, as it requires a physical ID-card. This adds another layer of security to the system and makes it nearly impossible to hijack an account.

Last but not least – signing legal documents electronically

The entire legislative process in Estonia was made digital years ago. The European Parliament is also taking its first steps now. This October saw the first EU law receiving a certified electronic signature. The regulation of security of gas supply was signed by President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, and Matti Maasikas, the Estonian Special Representative to the EU. A special electronic signature application was developed to enable certified electronic signatures to be applied on EU laws.

Often big things have small beginnings. The efforts to digitise EU processes and systems have been met with positive feedback. The next member states following the Estonian Presidency have expressed willingness to move forward with the initiatives that were set in motion in the last six months. Though updating entities as huge as the EU takes time and effort, the participants have already acknowledged the need to move further with the advancements that digital technologies bring to society.

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