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ICT disaster threatens Dutch environment law

The Dutch government’s revamp of its construction planning law faces major IT challenges and scepticism

The threat of ICT failure lurks for the Dutch Environment Act. The law must become a radical simplification of current laws and regulations, a revolution in spatial planning and the largest legislative operation in the Netherlands since 1848, but persistent ICT problems and costs are endangering the new law.

The new Dutch Environment Act must take effect on 1 January 2022, bringing together all the current 3,000 laws and 120 ministerial regulations that still determine the layout of buildings. Citizens and businesses must soon be able to easily arrange permits for renovations and events, thanks to clear digital zoning plans and short procedures.

The commissioning of the Environment Act was initially planned for mid-2019, but was postponed until January 2021 in 2017, after a devastating report by the body that assesses the digital project of the Dutch government. Its implementation has since been postponed until January 2022.

The biggest obstacle is the computer system to which all the bodies involved (municipalities, provinces, land register and water boards) must connect to.

“It is crucial that this works flawlessly. Without a digital system, the law cannot enter into force,” Kajsa Ollongren, minister of foreign affairs, told the Lower House earlier this year.

She commissioned the Bureau ICT review (BIT), the body that assesses the digital projects of the national government in the Netherlands, to carry out follow-up research into the Digital System Environment Act (DSO).

As a result of the first report of BIT, in 2017, the introduction of the law has already been postponed. The conclusion at the time was that the programme was taking too big a step at once, with an unnecessarily complex design. The advice at the time was to greatly reduce the scope and complexity, strengthen the influence of the competent authority on the design and put parts of the system into use even before the Act came into effect.

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The conclusions of the BIT follow-up report found that ICT systems are still inadequate, stating a concern “about the timely and successful introduction of the DSO, despite the decision to postpone the introduction by one year”.

It concluded that critical parts of the system are not complete and have not yet been sufficiently tested to be able to rely on the DSO as a whole being workable and manageable.

According to Dutch newspaper Trouw, which has seen two confidential reports on the progress of the Environment Act, it is doubtful whether the Act can be implemented in 2022.

A new postponement is lurking, with the danger that with further delay the political support for the Environment Act will also disappear. It is therefore very important for those involved to meet the implementation date of 1 January 2022, even if this has to be done with a flawed system.

If the implementation date is met, the BIT suspects the digital system will rely on a stripped down computer system. According to experts, it will then take a few years to further develop the system, and only then can the government think about expanding functionality. But a well-oiled system, with which citizens and companies can arrange things with the government in no time, is a long way off.

Budget overrun

The Dutch government already has a dubious reputation in the field of ICT. There have been problems with the C2000 police system, the chip card for public transport and with systems for the benefit agency, UWV, as well as the New Food Authority.

In 2014, a parliamentary committee led by Ton Elias investigated ICT in the Dutch government. Their verdict was harsh: the failures cost €1bn to €5bn per year. In response to the conclusions of the Elias committee, the BIT was set up.

The chances that the new Environment Act will also run significantly out of budget seem likely. The national government has made a budget of €142m available for the realisation of the basic level of the central, digital system, but according to the BIT report, €128.8m of this had already been spent by the end of March 2020.

Substantial transition costs

Although the national government has an additional €35m available for implementation support and €10m for setting up an information point, there is no overall overview of the implementation costs at the institutions involved. Consultancy firm KPMG has calculated that the total “transition costs” up to 2029 for the institutions involved amount to €1.5 to €1.8bn.

Municipalities will have to pay the lion’s share of these costs. They are very concerned about this. Last September, the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) adopted a motion calling on the government to set aside more money for the Environment Act. After the motion was passed, the VNG entered into discussions with Minister Ollongren. The latter let it be known that she saw the municipalities’ concerns and was open to dialogue.

Cost-benefit analysis

The starting point of the Act is that the costs must outweigh the benefits, but municipalities fear to lose money structurally once the law has come into force. For example, they have to deal with costs of personnel, information and ICT, but have little income in return. In fact, income will be lost because less fees can be levied when fewer permits are issued. It is strongly reminiscent of a previous transfer of tasks from central government to municipalities.

In 2015, the Dutch municipalities became responsible for youth care, work and income, and long-term care. However, they received hardly any extra money for the implementation, and instead decentralisation went hand in hand with austerity.

The national government assumes that the implementation of the Environment Act is self-sustaining, but it is very doubtful whether this will actually be the case. A study into the relationship between costs and benefits is still in progress, and the Dutch government is currently debating the Environmental Act.

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