Sorting out the Dutch government’s IT mess

Tech experts discuss the challenges and potential solutions to the Netherlands government’s IT problems

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The Netherlands wants to be at the forefront in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), yet the country’s government itself lacks a solid IT architecture and knowledge about technology and digitisation. So how can the government steer its IT into calmer waters?

A government includes of all kinds of institutional structures providing a stable, reliable function, while IT is dynamic, changes quickly, is innovative, has many complexities and is transformative.

Unfortunately, the Dutch government’s existing institutional structures are not suitable for innovation. “You have to think very carefully about how to bring these two opposites together,” said Marijn Janssen, professor of ICT and governance at TU Delft university of technology.

“The government wants stability and robustness and wants to function. But ICT innovation is the opposite – you try something with a certain risk of failure, learn from it and go on. It is actually diametrically opposed – and yet you need both.”

According to Daan Rijsenbrij, retired professor of IT at the VU and Radboud University, it is important to start with architectural sketches of the future digital society. “How will citizens and businesses deal with each other and with the government in seven to 10 years’ time?” he said. “That must be the starting point for our government ICT.”

When that is clear, the government’s role must be projected into it, not only as a regulator, but also as the manager of a large number of digital infrastructures, he added.

Last summer, a parliamentary investigation began into the Dutch government’s ICT problems and how to prevent IT failures in the future. “I did get a bit of a ‘Groundhog Day’ feeling,” said Rinke Smedinga, a publicist who is currently working, with August Hans den Boef, on a book entitled A digital banana republic: ICT and government in the Netherlands.

“The questions that are central to the research are variations on questions from previous committees,” said Smedinga. “I hope they have done their homework and built on the results of previous studies. If they haven’t, then it is just a matter of trying to fill a bucket full of holes.”

TU Delft’s Janssen believes it is almost impossible for the committee of inquiry to come up with a single solution, because ICT is so variable and each use-case requires different considerations. “Reflection is crucial,” he said. “Make sure that the government is thinking critically and can therefore make the right decisions. Having the right knowledge and being able to operate independently are very important.

“As a government, you realise that you are sometimes sucked in by smart lobbyists [for IT providers], but innovative, small companies – which often don’t have lobbyists – may have a better solution. Think carefully about that.”

Read more about government IT in the Netherlands

To be able to adopt this critical attitude, the government requires a certain amount of knowledge, said Rijsenbrij. “The government cannot solve its IT problems without help from the business community, carefully selected independent and impartial freelancers and energetic retired IT leaders,” he said.

But Rijsenbrij does not think the work should be completely taken over by external parties. “That way, you never build up knowledge yourself,” he said. “I believe in civil servants being coached by IT freelancers and, as I call them, vital old people [retired experts].”

Janssen also favours using independent knowledge providers to train government employees, but he also suggests the government should take on young students who have a lot of ICT knowledge and know where the world is going technologically. “Of course, they do not have knowledge of government structures, but they can be trained in them,” he said. “It is precisely the combination of technical ICT and specific governance domain knowledge that is crucial.”

But it takes time to build up such knowledge, said Janssen. “Collaboration is the key word here,” he said. “Take, for example, knowledgeable people from the scientific community or business community. It is naive to think that one person will know everything.”

The government’s exchange of knowledge with the business community needs improving, said Rijsenbrij. “Business experts often give lectures,” he said. “Everyone finds them interesting, the speaker gets a bottle of wine, but the next day, everyone continues in the same old way. That’s not the way to take knowledge transfer seriously. The government needs to take a real look at where similar problems have already been solved in the business world and see how it can join forces or learn from someone else.”

Responsibility for government ICT

So what exactly is Netherlands prime minister Mark Rutte’s role in the digitisation issue? “Rutte is at the very top of the hierarchy of our government,” said Janssen. “He can't interfere in the implementation [of technology]. He is of the opinion that the government already has a fairly clear view of where digitisation should go.

“It is important to have a common vision, but the challenge lies in the fragmentation of government organisations. Standardisation must be carried through properly, because otherwise there will be an interoperability problem.”

Rijsenbrij called for the responsibility for ICT to be removed from the Ministry of the Interior and placed under General Affairs. “Put a national CIO in place with the status of state secretary, so that he or she has access to the Council of Ministers,” he said. “Then give the CIO the mission to realise comprehensive IT support for the government within five years.” 

Learning from road construction

Janssen draws a comparison with Rijkswaterstaat, the Netherlands’ highway management agency. When a new road is built, various bodies and parties are involved, but because of the agency’s unambiguous way of working, the end result is predictable.

Rijsenbrij takes the analogy of Rijkswaterstaat even further, saying: "We pay road tax on our roads. I am very willing to pay to have a national Dutch digital infrastructure at my disposal.”

Rijsenbrij wants the government to develop a Dutch cloud to give the government a safe and reliable way to interact with citizens and businesses. “And then it would be perfectly possible to give those citizens and businesses access to that cloud as well,” he said.

Janssen added: “You want a secure and reliable infrastructure for the government on which you can exchange data and run various applications. With such an infrastructure, you don’t have to think about the basics over and over again, but you can focus directly on the real problems in society, such as debt relief.

“Then you don’t have to think about how to identify citizens or how to communicate safely with them, because that is guaranteed in the infrastructure. As a possible second step, you can then make this infrastructure available to citizens and businesses.”

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