By Charlotte van Ooijen and David Osimo
The COVID-19-induced lockdowns have drawn people all over the world into the digital realm. More than ever before, we work, shop and play online. During the first fiscal quarter of 2020, the video-conferencing app Zoom increased its customer base among businesses with more than 10 employees by 354 percent compared to the first fiscal quarter of 2019. E-commerce has also seen an impressive boost, especially in countries with the strictest lockdown measures, like the United Kingdom.
Source: Benedict Evans, “Step Changes in eCommerce,” ben-evans.com, 25 April 2021.
Arguably, the pandemic has also revealed digital government to be an essential service, but does this mean its uptake has significantly risen like for its private sector counterparts? Do we see an equal run to digital channels when it comes to conducting business with government?
This question is easier to ask than to respond. When looking for answers in official European Union statistics, it becomes clear that the status of digital government is mostly measured by supply-related indicators. There is one exception: the information society indicator “Individuals using the internet for interaction with public authorities.” It considers individuals’ use of the internet to obtain information from public authorities, download official forms and submit completed forms. National Statistical Institutes collect the data annually from around 200.000 individuals aged 16-74 in the EU based on Eurostat’s model questionnaires. While the indicator for the submission of forms in 27 member states has gone up to 38% in 2020, up from 36% in 2019, it would be a too rash conclusion to say that digital government has benefited from the pandemic. The 2% increase simply seems to follow the trend of the years before which showed a 3% increase in 2019, 4% in 2018 and 2% in 2017. Moreover, a yearly indicator does not capture the rapid evolution related to the pandemic.
Source: Eurostat, “Individuals using the internet for interaction with public authorities, by type of interaction,” 08 February 2021.
Yet this data gap is not unavoidable. Why do we keep using data coming from citizen surveys? Doesn’t it make sense to look closer to the source, that is the digital services themselves that know how often they’ve been consulted? Surely, the machine can provide us with more accurate data, more frequently and that can be understood by other machines.
Only a couple of member states are tapping into such machine-generated data and proudly display the results on national dashboards. Some insights on the adoption of digital government during the pandemic should be available there.
In Italy, The Digital Transformation Progress dashboard of the Agency for Digital Italy (AGID) includes indicators on the uptake of the eID service SPID. The data reveal a sharp surge in the number of Italians creating eID accounts from March 2020 on.
Graph created from data available on: Agenzia per l’Italia Digitale, “Identità SPID erogate,” Avanzamento Trasformazione Digitale, visited on 29 April 2021.
Data made available by the public authorities in Spain through the DATAOBSAE dashboard show a spike in the number of created accounts for the Spanish eID Cl@ve between March and June 2020, followed by a continuation of the pattern in previous years.
Graph created from data available on: Gobierno de España, “No. of users registered in Cl@ve (accumulated),” DATAOBSAE, visited on 29 April 2021.
Together with its south-European colleagues, Portugal is one of the few countries providing monthly updated data on the adoption of its eID service. Contrary to Italy and Spain, no significant bump in registered eID accounts can be noted in the course of 2020. In Portugal, eID uptake had a surge in mid-2019.
Graph created from data available on: Agência para a Modernização Administrativa, “Ativações de Chave Móvel Digital,” dados.gov, visited on 29 April 2021.
In order to draw conclusions on the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on the uptake of digital government in Europe, more data are needed. Such data need to be easily discoverable, regularly updated and machine readable to facilitate a comparative analysis. Moreover, the number of eID accounts in a country is not the sole indicator of digital government uptake. Time for a tour d’horizon among digital front-runners.
Finding and sorting the uptake data pearls
The Lisbon Council has conducted a treasure hunt for data pearls in the European digital government uptake landscape, resulting in the beta Digital Government MetaMonitor. Using almost 100 different sources, ranging from national digital government dashboards (e.g. e-estonia) to yearly reports by service providers (e.g. Logius Jaarverslag, the Netherlands), the Digital Government MetaMonitor currently assembles data from Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. It unveils the wide variety in national approaches to assembling and publishing uptake data. The produced overview of countries’ monitoring efforts regarding digital government uptake can be considered as an evolving tool, which may serve to harmonise the different approaches across Europe. For more details on the methodology and for access to the project’s open data, visit metamonitor.eu
For different groups of service stakeholders (citizens, businesses and public sector institutions) the MetaMonitor assesses the completeness, update frequency and machine readability of uptake data on five key digital services: eID, ePayment, Messaging, Transparency and General Digital Services and brings the original uptake data together in one place. Are the relevant data available? How often are they updated? Are they available in machine-readable format?
These three questions have guided the meta-analysis of the 51 selected key uptake indicators, among which are featured: the annual number of activated eID transactions by citizens, the cumulative number of public organisations using the central ePayment system and the annual number of messages sent to businesses using the government digital mail system.
The MetaMonitor Index grid shows that more up-to-date and machine-readable data are available on the uptake of eID solutions than on any other key services. It also shows that the best data on ePayment is provided by Italy, quickly followed by the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain. The Netherlands, followed by Denmark, performs at a high level on the provision of data on the national digital mail solution.
As a treasure hunter you need special skills to find and extract the data pearls on digital government uptake hidden on government websites. Machine translation software is useful once a relevant source has been found, but doesn’t indicate what search terms to use in the first place. It cannot tell you the name of the Portuguese eID-system or the Dutch government digital mail system. As pointed out in the Lisbon Council Policy Brief The 2021 State of Co-Creation, there is a need for a more structured and coherent monitoring of digital government uptake.
For most indicators, the data have been assembled through a simple copy-paste operation from the original source, after which information about the update frequency and machine readability was added manually. Besides this being a rather labour-intensive process, it is vulnerable to mistakes and the result risks getting outdated. Only a limited number of indicators shows the potential of machine-generated data to ensure a higher data quality, including regular updates and reliable metadata. Such next-level indicators have been marked with a light bulb in the top-right corner. Two eID-related indicators for Italy can be updated automatically from the source, showing the relevance for countries to provide their data in machine-readable format.
Help improve the availability of digital government uptake data
Despite all our best efforts to uncover the uptake data pearls hidden across Europe, it is possible that we missed some or that we made a mistake in sorting the ones we did find. We call on you to help us improve and extend the Digital Government MetaMonitor. Do you know about a data source that should be included? Would you like to suggest a new indicator or service category? Please let us know! Together we can evolve the MetaMonitor as a useful tool for the whole digital government community.
As Co-VAL comes to an end, it aims to ensure its sustainability and legacy by launching tools that, among other things, help better understand how digital government users behave. The MetaMonitor aims to do that.
Evans, Benedict. “Step Changes in eCommerce,” ben-evans.com, 25 April 2021
The Lisbon Council. “Digital Government MetaMonitor (beta),” 2021
Van Ooijen, Charlotte, Francesco Mureddu and the Co-VAL Stakeholder Panel. “The 2021 State of Co-Creation: delivering Services Together,” Lisbon Council Policy Brief, 14.1 (2021)
Osimo, David. “How Digital Government Has Risen as an Essential Tool in Times of Crisis and Lockdown,” Co-VAL, 27 May 2020
The authors wish to thank Johanna Barton, Paul Hofheinz, Cristina Moise, Francesco Mureddu and Marcello Verona.
Charlotte van Ooijen is senior research fellow and David Osimo is director of research at the Lisbon Council, a leading Brussels-based think tank and member of the Understanding Value Co-Creation in Public Services for Transforming European Public Administrations (Co-VAL) consortium. For more, visit https://www.co-val.eu.
 The most recent sample figure available refers to the 2016 survey, see https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/cache/metadata/en/isoc_i_esms.htm.