Dutch IT ministry needed to take digital lead

Whenever the media covers a failed Dutch government IT project, the question is always asked whether the government should have a ministry of IT

When former Dutch prime minister Wim Kok was asked to use a computer mouse in 1998, he held it like it was a remote control. He had never used one before. He also printed his emails.

Now, almost 20 years later, things are not much better in terms of the government’s understanding of IT, according to some in the IT industry.

Researcher and artificial intelligence entrepreneur Tijn van der Zant gets upset when he talks about the lack of IT awareness in Dutch politics. After speaking to the Thai ministry of IT, he thought it was time to create a sense of urgency for a Dutch minister of IT. He started a petition for this in 2015, but only 500 people signed and the www.ministervanict.nl domain is no longer working.

The question of whether the Netherlands should have a minister of IT keeps popping up, especially when the media publish articles about a failed IT project at a government institution. The latest one being that the computers of the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV) keep crashing, resulting in the loss of information about thousands of unemployed people.

A quick search around the world shows that countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Qatar, Estonia and Belgium have a ministry of IT or digital development. Estonia is often mentioned in the Netherlands. Its national ID card system is more than simply a legal ID, as it also serves as the digital access card for all of Estonia’s secure e-services.

“Looking at the eGovemement Benchmark, released by the EU in 2016, the situation is not that bad, especially if you look at online public services,” said Dirk van Roode, manager of public affairs at IT trade organisation Nederland ICT. “But if you want to take the lead and sell solutions to other countries, we have to work harder.”

IT entrepreneur Jan Prins said everything government wants to change starts with an IT project. “A minister should realise that if they want to do something, they have to do it with IT or software.”

The biggest problem in the Netherlands is that nobody is taking responsibility to make digital changes.

“The Dutch are famous for their consensus decision-making. But you can’t do that with a digital project,” said Prins. “You need to choose one direction and go there. There is no minister with the guts to make such decisions.

“The Dutch culture results in IT projects that keep changing every year. This often leads to soft and vague decision-making, with all stakeholders involved, and unrealistic wish lists and contradictory requirements. On paper, of course, everything is possible. But IT guys are not magicians, so the project never finishes, the costs exceed the budget and no one is satisfied.”

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A lack of IT knowledge also causes a lot of failed IT projects at government institutions, which has an impact on the IT infrastructure of the government.

Van der Zant is concerned about the security and privacy of crucial IT infrastructures in the Netherlands. “Some governments still use Windows XP. What on earth are they thinking? This software is installed on computers with access to the private data of the public,” he said.

Privacy and security

Van Roode said part of the problem is that privacy and security are approached differently depending on the ministry, which can be confusing to organisations. A centralised policy could help.

Many in the IT sector agree that an IT ministry is needed to help the Netherlands get ready for digital transformation. “To make that happen, we need more highly educated IT-skilled professionals,” said Van Roode. “Think of a system where government and organisations work together and make policies and solutions within one domain, such as healthcare. And those domains can work together and copy best practices.”

“Some governments still use Windows XP. What on earth are they thinking? This software is installed on computers with access to the private data of the public”
Tijn van der Zant, AI entrepreneur

Nederland ICT is not demanding a minister of IT, but thinks a ministerial top team on IT is a better idea. “IT is everywhere: in healthcare, the army and education, for example. We have ministers for all that,” he said. “One minister doesn’t have a say in anything about another minister, meaning that a minister of IT can’t do anything about IT in healthcare. A team of ministers, coordinated by the prime minister, would not only have that power, but could also share best practices. That is what is needed to make a digital transformation.”

Van der Zant doesn’t think a top team would work, and instead a minister of IT is required. “The knowledge gained in a ministry would be preserved and the organisation would learn from its mistakes,” he said.

“A top team has no memory, and a ministry is the highest authority we have in the Netherlands to change something. Only our king has more power, but we can’t ask him to get an IT education.”

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