How can the public sector overcome its ‘digital weakness’

28 Oct 2019

Image: © Valeriy/

Deputy director of the Digital Society Institute Martin Schallbruch argues that digital strategy in public sector is currently failing, and discusses how he feels it needs to change.

It is now over a year since the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect, forcing all EU companies to more often demand consent from all their customers and business partners or face huge fines.

On the face of it, this new regulation seems to be a huge step forward in the strengthening of data protection laws and an indicator that politics is successfully understanding and tackling an important area of digitisation. But is that really the case? Is GDPR a flawless attempt to regulate this digital space?

Unfortunately, though it is a step forward in digital regulation, GDPR isn’t as effective as possible in ensuring the digital space works and is safe for all. Though data protection laws have exploded, data protection in general has suffered. In practice, the small-scale approach of data protection law largely evaporates and is no longer capable of protecting citizens effectively, comprehensibly and transparently from the actual hazards of data processing.

Data protection is just one example of a much larger issue here: the public sector in general has been weak at implementing a digital strategy and regulation. Current governments’ digital capabilities make overcoming their digital weakness a complicated and long-term task – however there are five key steps states could take to strengthen their digital strategies, and ensure work for all citizens.

General digital laws

There needs to be a new, well-considered and less-detailed digital law. This should be a civil code for the digital space. Currently, digital law is focused on specific applications of digital technology, such as autonomous vehicles. However, this is too specific to apply generally.

A new law should lay down basic rules for responsibility in the digital realm, such as a minimum-security obligation for manufacturers of networked devices. This would allow the digital sphere to move away from the many individual laws toward a coherent and comprehensible digital law.

Increased state investment

Companies leading digital innovation in sectors such as healthcare or education are, meanwhile, large tech firms. Traditionally, these services are provided by the state, and this should continue to be the case to ensure democratic steering and control.

However, it becomes a lot more difficult for the state to do so when it’s not leading digital innovation in this field. The state becomes over reliant on its suppliers providing new and innovative technology. Take healthcare as an example, in the UK, corporate firm Virgin provide a vast amount of new medical technology to the National Health Service.

The state is reliant on private corporate companies, such as Virgin, to innovate and provide new technologies, as it is unable to innovate itself due to a lack of investment in this area.

The state must invest a much larger amount of funding into digital innovation in every traditionally state-run sector. This way, state-run services will continue to be public, but they will also be much quicker to implement digital innovations, and not be reliant on the private sector.

Greater autonomy at a lower level

Currently, if a government wants to implement a new digital strategy it has to be done at a country-wide level, with the approval of many different actors involved. Not only does this make it extremely difficult to obtain overwhelming approval, but even it is also an extremely timely task.

In order, to ensure that governments are leading the way in implementing new digital strategies, governments should give greater autonomy and independence to the lower levels of government, such as local councils or states, so that they can decide and implement their own digital strategies within a joint interoperability framework.

This way, implementation is a much faster process, and local authorities can review and adapt their digital strategies to their own specific needs.

Infrastructure advancement                

In most countries, the digital infrastructure planning is not sufficient in ensuring everyone is able to reap the benefits from digital innovation. This digital infrastructure planning must go far beyond just 5G connectivity or fibre-optic networks.

Digital accessibility is more than that: cross-sector basic services such as digital identity or trustworthy cloud services are necessary for citizens and companies. Estonia is a great example for this much broader approach to digital infrastructures.

Digitalisation and politics

There needs to be a reorganisation of the way in which digital innovation is viewed in politics. Though in recent times there has been a stronger focus on digitalisation in politics, such as the EU Commission recently appointing an executive vice-president for the digital age, there must be more integration of digital in all fields of politics.

Digitalisation is affecting every single industry and can drastically increase the speed of change for many country’s key issues. The greatest effects arise from the interlinking of sectors such as energy and transport.

This requires horizontal, overarching digital strategies and standards. Therefore, digitalisation must be introduced in all departments of government, and the best way to do so would be to create a ‘Ministry of Digital Affairs’ to ensure that there is horizontal digital support for all departments of government.

Digital innovation can be incredibly beneficial to citizens, whether is used to tackle key, societal issues such as climate change, implemented to provide better governmental services such as healthcare, or more generally to allow all citizens accessibility to safe, digital services. However, states must reorganise and strengthen their digital strategies to ensure that digital innovation is a benefit to society and that our community still holds control.

By Martin Schallbruch

Martin Schallbruch is deputy director of ESMT Berlin’s Digital Society Institute and a senior researcher of cyber innovation and cyber regulation.