Privacy Laws

The public sector’s weak digital strategy is threatening society – how can this be changed?

By Martin Schallbruch, Deputy Director of ESMT Berlin’s Digital Society Institute.

In May 2018, the EU implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), forcing all EU companies to demand consent from all their customers and business partners.

The consequences of not doing so, would be for these companies to face huge fines. When initially implemented, GDPR was seen by many as a drastic change in how we regulate and protect people’s data, and heralded as the solution to previously lax and insufficient data protection laws. Not only this, but it was also considered an indicator that politics had finally got to grips with, and understood, a key area of digitisation.

Over a year on from GDPR implementation, the public sector is still weak in implementing digital strategies, and protecting its citizens in the digital space. GDPR, of course, has been a step forward in digital regulation, but it isn’t as effective as possible in ensuring the digital space works and is safe for all.

On top of this, data protection is just simply one area of digitisation which governments should be implementing strategies and regulation. Unfortunately, the public sector has been extremely weak overall in this area – something I have outlined in my book, ‘weak state on the net: How digitisation puts the state into question’.

Data laws, such as GDPR, have exploded in recent times, however data protection in general has suffered. In practice, the small-scale approach of data protection law is no longer capable of protecting citizens effectively, comprehensibly and transparently from the actual hazards of data processing. The current digital capabilities of governments make overcoming their digital weakness a very long-term and complicated task. However, there are five key steps states could take to strengthen their digital strategies, and ensure they work for all citizens. 

Less-specific digital law

Currently, digital law is heavily focused on the specific applications of digital technology, such as autonomous vehicles or tech fraud. This is way too specific to apply generally to the digital space, creating blurred lines when it comes to digital law. There needs to be a new, well-considered and less-detailed digital law.

This should be a civil code for the digital space. This new law should lay down basic, general 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.

Greater state investment

Large tech firms and private companies are currently leading digital innovation in sectors such as education and healthcare. These are services that are traditionally provided by the state, and this should continue to be the case, but it becomes extremely difficult for the state to do so if it is not leading digital innovation in that sector. Currently, the investment in digital innovation in these areas by the government is not comparable to the investment of large tech firms and private companies, which is why the private sector is leading the way in this area.

The state is currently over reliant on its private sector suppliers providing new and innovative technology. A good example of this, is the over reliance of the UK’s National Health Service on external suppliers to provide new medical technology, and innovations, which of course they have to purchase.

Governments 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 to innovate and provide new technologies.

Greater independence at lower government levels

In the case of most governments, implementing a new digital strategy is an operation that is taken on at a country-wide level. This is, of course, not only a difficult and timely task to get mass approval for, from all those effected, but after doing so, it is an extremely timely task to actually implement. In fact, it can take years to implement a new digital strategy, in which time, with the fast-pace of digital innovation, these technologies could be outdated by the time they are actually implemented.

To ensure that governments are leading the way in implementing new digital strategies, there should be greater autonomy and independence at the lower levels of government i.e. local councils or states, so that they have the freedom to implement their own digital strategies. This way, implementation is a much faster process and local authorities can review and adapt their digital strategies to their own specific needs.

Advancements in infrastructure

In the majority of countries, the digital infrastructure planning is simply not sufficient in ensuring everyone is able to reap the benefits from digital innovation.

The planning of digital infrastructure must go much further than just fibre-optic networks and 5g connectivity to ensure there are common offerings across all industries and applications. 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.  

Politics and digitalisation

Currently, there is very little integration of digital in all fields of politics. Though there are instances, in recent times, of there being a stronger focus of digitalisation in politics, such as theEU Commission recently appointing an Executive Vice President for the Digital Age, there needs to be a complete re-organisation of the way in which digital innovation is viewed in politics.

It seems obvious to say that digitalisation is effecting every single industry, and can help to tackle country’s key issues, such as national security, energy crises and climate change, at a much faster pace.

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.

The fact of the matter is, digital innovation can be extremely beneficial to citizens. However, current digital strategies are not strong enough to ensure that digital innovation is not a threat to society – but, only a benefit. Digital innovation can be incredibly beneficial in tackling key, societal issues such as climate change, providing better governmental services such as healthcare, or more generally allowing all citizens the accessibility to safe, digital services – however, this will only be effective if these changes are made.

About the author

Martin Schallbruch is Deputy Director of ESMT Berlin’s Digital Society Institute and a Senior Researcher of Cyber Innovation and Cyber Regulation.

As a long-time Director General for Information Technology, Digital Society and Cyber Security in the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, Martin Schallbruch has largely designed the Digital Agenda of the federal government. He developed and implemented several government programs and legislative proposals on the digitization, and for more than 10 years, almost every IT or digitization project of the Federal Government was led or advised by him.