The Interoperable Europe Act is a cornerstone of the European Union’s policy to substantially reinforce cooperation around interoperability among all public administrations in the EU.
The proposed Act sets up a new cooperation framework on interoperability between EU Member States and EU institutions providing digital services. In this framework, Member States, the Commission, the Committee of the Regions as well as the European Economic and Social Committee (CoR and ECOSOC) agree on joint priorities and work together on common interoperability solutions. This enhanced cooperation helps design and implement policies in which digital aspects are considered from the start.
The new policy supports the sharing and reuse of solutions and data between administrations, with a focus on the removal of unnecessary related administrative burdens (including legal, organisational, semantical and technical obstacles). This helps reduce cost and time for citizens, businesses and for the public sector itself.
Improved interoperability will lead to an emerging network of sovereign and interconnected public administrations, working together closely in fostering innovation and reducing fragmented policy implementation, in pursuit of the EU’s digital targets for 2030.
As from the composition of the terms ‘inter’ (Latin for between), ‘opera’ (Latin for work) and ‘ability’, interoperability is a term that describes the power of systems or organisations to cooperate in order to pursue common objectives.
In the public sector, interoperability relates to the ability of administrations to cooperate, exchange information and make the delivery of public services seamless across borders, sectors and organisational boundaries.
Essentially, interoperability is about achieving common goals together, despite organisational or geographical distance between actors. Solutions in interoperability are often compared to toy bricks that can be easily exchanged, reused and connected, even if they come in very different colors and shapes.
No, a high level of interoperability cannot be ensured solely by technical means. It needs agreements and established processes between different organisations, aligned data descriptions, laws that allow for those data exchanges and structured long-term cooperation.
The European Interoperability Framework (EIF) distinguishes four different levels of interoperability that need to be integrated into an integrated governance approach: technical, semantic (to make sure systems have the same understanding in the language they use, and data is structured the same way), organisational (for instance aligned business processes) and legal level.
The range of benefits from improved interoperability and public sector cooperation is extensive: There is an obvious reduction in cost, time, energy and unnecessary administrative burden for citizens, businesses and the public sector itself. Similarly, improving interoperability can contribute to economic growth, increase strategic and political independence as well as public trust in their governments.
Citizens, businesses and communities depend on the delivery of high-quality public services. Digitalising these services and making them interoperable can bring significant time savings for citizens and businesses. For instance, they enable citizens to complete tax forms, renew their passport, and access family benefits in only a few clicks. They remove the burden of sending citizens and businesses from one public office or website to the next. Setting up high-quality digital public services requires interoperability cooperation, a strong connection of trust between public administrations and a seamless data exchange.
The public-private ‘GovTech’ cooperation that the Act foresees supports innovation in the public sector, such as the uptake of innovative technologies and joint experimentation with new interoperable solutions. Innovation in the public sector has the potential to make public services more accessible, trustworthy and efficient and creates new business opportunities for technology companies and startups.
Interoperable digital public services are essential for successfully digitalising the European Union’s single market.
The estimated annual cost-savings credited to cross-border interoperability range between €5.5 and €6.3 million for citizens, and between €5.7 and €19.2 billion for businesses. Savings credited to cross-border interoperability range between €5.5 and €6.3 million for citizens, and between €5.7 and €19.2 billion for businesses.
A 2022 study of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) quantifies the benefits of improved public sector interoperability to citizens, businesses and public administrations, going beyond cross-border aspects. It shows, for example, that individuals could save up to 24 million hours, and businesses could save up to 30 billion hours a year.
Therefore, interoperability is an established theme across the EU’s digital and data policies, and it is a crucial pillar in further developing the digital single market.
The Act establishes the Interoperable Europe Board to steer the common interoperability effort, bringing together Member State central digital transformation authorities and the Commission.
Amongst other, the board will have the mandate to agree on common reusable interoperability solutions/resources, support and innovation measures and update the European Interoperability Framework (EIF). The priorities for coordinated public investments in interoperability solutions and support will be set in the Interoperable Europe Agenda.
The Interoperable Europe Board will be composed of representatives from the EU Member States, the Commission, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee.
Co-ownership with the Member States represented by their core stakeholders, the government Chief Information Officers (CIOs) is essential. They are the ones responsible for interoperability at national level and for implementing interoperable EU-wide policy tools and systems. Interoperability solutions – concepts, tools, specifications, programmes, semantic assets – cannot be developed top-down or, if reinvented repeatedly, would constitute a considerable waste of effort.
The agreed consensus of these actors can speed up and support implementation measures and solutions on interoperability.
The EU Digital Europe Programme (DIGITAL) provides dedicated funding for developing and maintaining of EU public sector interoperability resources, such as interoperability assessment tools, semantic vocabularies, GovTech or reusable building blocks for data exchange and electronic identity. DIGITAL makes some €130 million between 2023 and 2027 available for support for interoperability.
The Interoperable Europe Act reinforces support and innovation measures, focusing on knowledge exchange and training on digital-ready policy making, and promoting the development and uptake of innovative interoperability solutions in cross-border contexts. To support innovative interoperability solutions, the Commission can set up regulatory sandboxes that will allow for testing of new technological solutions and regulatory learning. The Interoperable Europe Board is tasked to advise on policy implementation or innovation support measures deemed necessary for the achievement of higher level of interoperability in the EU.
A higher level of public sector interoperability has the strongest positive effect in those organisations and policy sectors with a solid public sector connection. These sectors include justice and home affairs, taxation and customs, transport, environment and agriculture, and health.
Not surprisingly, interoperability fosters resilience and responsiveness in times of crisis, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown. More interoperability was necessary for creating digital Covid-19 certificates that are accessible across the EU and for real-time sharing of data on available beds in intensive care in hospitals.
Interoperability across different sectors is also crucial, as many public services use data from different policy domains. Integrated public services could lead to more personalised and proactive public services; for example, combining cadastre registration and taxation information could help automatically fill tax declarations.
For the use and delivery of public services, administrations need information. Public administrations should not burden citizens and businesses with providing the same information again and again. In that case they need to have access to registers and other data collections established at different levels of the (local, regional, national and European) public sector. A lack of interoperability means that those data sources remain inaccessible, resulting in unnecessarily costly and time-consuming administrative processes, a burden for citizens and companies, and administrations themselves.
For instance, with limited interoperability at national and European level, citizens and businesses are often stuck with the common practice of exchanging PDFs as evidence, instead of moving to fully automated end-to-end digital processes and services.
Poor interoperability also means that public administrations cannot exchange digital solutions.. If interoperability is not considered early on in the policymaking process, this can lead to legislation that can, in the worst case, not be implemented as intended or only at very high costs. A lack of interoperability also limits the capacity of public administrations to innovate and makes them unable to act rapidly in times of crisis.
The digital transformation of public administrations is among the top priorities of the decade.
A need for stronger action in the field of interoperability was expressed by EU Member States and regional and local governments, amongst others in the ministerial declarations of Tallinn (2017), Berlin (2020), Lisbon (2021) and Strasbourg (2022) as well as the Living-in.eu Declaration of local administrations (2019). Ministers responsible for public sector transformation and Member State chief information officers (CIOs) have become increasingly vocal about strengthening European interoperability cooperation.
Likewise, EU citizens from the Conference on the Future of Europe called to facilitate cross-border interoperability, among others in the field of access to digital infrastructure and to simplify the reception and integration process of migrants. While several initiatives are already in place (with a fundamental role of the non-binding European Interoperability Framework), none of these provide a binding and overarching policy approach to interoperability. As a result, despite efforts in recent decades, data sharing and digitalisation of public services remain constrained across European administrations.
In addition, the experience of Member States has shown that, where a legal basis for interoperability frameworks is provided, those frameworks evolve into a consistent and coherent point of reference that places interoperability at the forefront of policy considerations. Member States with binding interoperability governance are performing better in their digital transformation while remaining open to innovation and cooperation with partners, from private or other countries public services.
According to the principle of subsidiarity, action at EU level should be taken only when the aims envisaged cannot be achieved sufficiently by Member States alone and can therefore, because of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the EU. Member States and other stakeholders have identified this element in the consultation process regarding the need for a more substantial level of European interoperability.
However, Interoperability cannot be achieved from the top down by a single entity, as it cannot be achieved from the bottom up by individual actors: it requires effective cooperation between policymakers and policy implementers across all levels of government and sectors.
The Act embraces this bottom-up cooperation and top-down co-ownership among all levels of government and key stakeholders in Member States, resulting in a shared interoperability ecosystem. It does not require harmonisation of the fundamental way public administrations work or abandonment of sovereignty.
For these reasons, the Act is not a threat but an enabler for subsidiarity, reinforcing resilience of public administrations and their digital sovereignty.
Apart from the incentives to implement the commonly agreed interoperability solutions, technology and rules, the main obligations for a Member States will be:
- to share its own interoperability solutions for digital services with other public sector bodies
- to perform a mandatory assessment on the impacts on cross-border interoperability in case a public sector body wants to introduce or change a digital system that (potentially) uses/exchanges data from/to another Member State.
- to appoint a national coordinator for public sector interoperability issues,
- to monitor and report on its level of interoperability on a regular basis
The proposed measures do not go beyond what is necessary and fully respect the constitutional rights and freedoms of public administrations. Infrastructure and solutions built in the past and implemented will be used as much as possible.
Owing to the cross-cutting nature of interoperability, the Act also aims to facilitate the digital implementation of sectoral policies. This Act does not overrule sectoral standards but sets up clear incentives to align in the future, for example, through a mandatory interoperability assessment, greater transparency about and reuse of existing solutions, through the Interoperable Europe Platform, innovation and support services. This way the Act improves the consistency of interoperability solutions used across sectors and supports data sharing and data availability for public use.
The Interoperable Europe Board is supported by the Interoperable Europe Community - an open forum of professionals and interested parties advising on interoperability and public sector innovation. The proposal foresees that the Interoperable Europe Community should be open to all interested parties and bring public and private stakeholders together. This includes citizens with expertise in cross-border interoperability, coming from different backgrounds, such as academia, research and innovation, education, standardisation and specifications, businesses and public administration at all levels.
Stakeholders, including SMEs and startups, can also participate in the GovTech ecosystem. This allows them to join forces at EU level to experiment with technology in a very flexible setup. All results – good or less good – are shared openly. This speeds up the testing of new technologies, including with private sector players, learning lessons and, ideally, scale up successful tests.
The European Interoperability Framework contains generally accepted interoperability guidelines in the form of common principles, models and recommendations on all different levels of interoperability – technical, semantic, organisational and legal – in an integrated governance approach.
Even though the EIF has been the main reference of EU interoperability policy since 2010, it has always been non-binding. It also lacked the means to support the Member States, regions and municipalities in the concrete implementation of the Framework. More cooperation, common rules, and coordinated EU initiatives around the EIF are required.
The new Act will address these issues and transform the European Interoperability Framework into the single point of reference. This will result in a formal coherent interoperability policy of the public service sector in the EU that can be updated when necessary.
While not binding as such, the Act will provide strong incentives to align with agreed interoperability solutions, e.g., through a mandatory interoperability assessment or a strengthened European Interoperability Framework. Also, EU policy proposals must be assessed with the same instruments.
One of the objectives of the Interoperable Europe Act will be to create a human-centric EU approach to interoperability all the way from the initial stadium of policymaking to policy implementation. This means that interoperability solutions shall be designed not only with full respect to the existing privacy and data protection rules, but they shall put the needs of citizens and businesses in the centre, including by fostering a more cooperative design approach.
This applies to the design and use of regulatory sandboxes for experimenting with new technologies and service approaches.
Finally, improved interoperability facilitates the principle of good administration and the right of every person to access his or her data while maintaining the legitimate interests of confidentiality. In terms of the right to free movement within the EU, the elimination of non-interoperable administrative procedures will help Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) to work across the Single Market.
Interoperability of digital services is important to build the Digital Single Market and to reach the targets for the digitalisation of public services set out in the Digital Decade’. The use of interoperable solutions will help public administrations to achieve the targets more effectively and efficiently. The same is true for the sectorial targets, for example in the domain of health. The data collected under this Regulation can also contribute to relevant monitoring.
Developments in the broader policy area of digital public services include the Single Digital Gateway Regulation or the Data Governance Act, while the Union legislator is discussing new legislative proposals, e.g., a Regulation for a European Digital Identity or the Data Act. As these initiatives already touch on different aspects of the digital economy and interoperability, the proposed Interoperable Europe Act aims to facilitate the interoperable implementation of certain parts of those policies. These are relevant from the aspect of public services, by setting up an ongoing structured cooperation around public sector cross-border interoperability.