Digital Government at work in Belgium
e-ID, the keystone for modernized, strengthened social cohesion
Belgium is an example of the convergence between e-Gov. 2.0, that is the “Citizen-Centric Government”, and good governance geared towards sustainable development. Like a number of pioneering European countries, Belgium signed up to this vision of the future when its eGov strategy was adopted in 2003, and then amended in 2007 and reaping digital dividends. Putting clichés to one side, it must be said that pragmatism is part of the genetic make-up of Belgians.
Because of this pragmatism, when it came to setting priorities, given the scale of the issue, Belgium humbly realized that perhaps designing intelligent systems was less important than listening to the opinions of representative bodies, communities, citizen groups, academic experts, entrepreneurs, regional, federal and local bodies and all cultural or governmental authorities, in particular on their vision for their individual or collective future.
Today, adherence to this vision of modernized, efficient public services is essential in the Kingdom of Belgium, and everyone involved is becoming increasingly aware that more than just being a passing fad, or economically necessary, the digital world can first and foremost provide a more general sense of collective well-being, at the heart the sustainable world we are striving for.
Pragmatism, simplicity and humility, for typically Belgian well-being
The choices made in terms of digital government by the federal public authorities in Belgium have been influenced by the importance given to pragmatism and simplicity in order to win over as many people as possible. For electronic services, from 2003, the Belgian government opted for a tripartite approach to ensure success:
First of all, strengthening social cohesion, so improving the sovereign links between citizens and authorities, in general through administration. This approach requires clear codes of perception and understanding, to avoid any distrust of the system. In particular, the aim was to put forward that the goal of new, secure e-ID cards, over and above their use for identification and travelling, was to enable the delivery of improved public services. Belgian public authorities therefore chose to place the Registre National Belge (National population register) at the heart of the approach, managed by local authorities and overseen by the Service Fédéral des Populations (Federal public service for citizens), which reports to the Belgian Interior Ministry. This approach to deliver modern electronic services is unprecedented.
- The second aspect was to offer e-services to improve public services in general, taking into account citizen mobility. Since the internet was chosen as the main channel for providing these services, from the very beginning issues in terms of trust (or mistrust), and using online services had to be addressed. Public authorities had to show their ability to take on the role of professional operators, implementing the best practices in terms of personalized services and multi-channel customer relations.
- Then, debate on traceability and trust had to be opened up to the public. Belgium opted for a single identification card for all areas of administration, and implemented powerful data interoperability methods to increase efficiency. As a result, efforts had to be made to avoid the emergence of a potential 'Big Brother' system which would infringe upon individual and public freedom. It is in this area that Belgium probably been the most innovative compared with other countries which have adopted the same approach.
For all citizens, the ability to check on traceability
By pushing the rebuilding of social cohesion and customer relations, the Belgian public authorities chose to strongly focus on the 'contractual’ aspect of the approach, perfectly in line with the original spirit of rights and responsibilities in the founding social contract of the Belgian constitution.
So one of the very first measures to be implemented provided citizens with a new right:
the ability to check whether their personal files had been accessed by public authorities, and the name of the public employee who had accessed them. Citizens could then also submit an electronic request to the public authorities, asking them to explain why they accessed their files.
For a long time, this e-Government application held the record for use by citizens. In practice, the system worked, as some public employees were indeed found guilty of unjustified access to files. Therefore, the trust of citizens in the e-Government program was won, and the gamble to ensure comprehensive take-up paid off. Trust is not demonstrated through words, but through actions.
Labels, codes and signs to build trust
The final challenge was to disseminate this new framework, and ensure it was adopted by all social and economic stakeholders. Public authorities at the time recognized that in our statutory law system, the successful implementation of such a framework required the trust of the general public. We have moved on from the times when Colgate and Procter & Gamble could jointly set up a National Institute of Dental Health certifying the therapeutic properties of their products. Consumers have become more discerning since then.
Therefore, it was essential to create a brand, labels and standards guaranteeing the sovereignly endorsed authority and trustworthiness of all new services which service operators would launch, and in particular ensuring that they would be well-known and recognized, as well as appointing a neutral public organization to run the system and protect citizens.
- Third-party services were thoroughly organized and placed under the aegis of the Privacy Commissions, ensuring the digital interoperability of state services. To compare this with the French system, it would be like providing the CNIL (Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertés - National commission for information technology and freedom) with the technical resources to place it at the heart of electronic exchanges, and allow it control any abuse of the system in real time.
- Considerable thought went into the product and its presentation (visual look of the card, content, packaging), its dissemination (real stores, online stores), its price (acceptable given the perception of the services provided), and advertising (communications). A specific media strategy supported this ‘marketing approach’.
Police on Web
“Police on web” is one of 600 applications which use online identification in Belgium. Bike theft? Graffiti? Going on holiday? Report it all directly on the internet! Since 100% of the Belgian population have eID cards, all citizens can report thefts over the internet. This application is part of the measures to streamline administrative procedures.
(Official information and services)
More info about "Police on Web"
Belgian eID cards: 2016 facts and figures
- All citizens have a card - over 20 million cards issued as of 2016
- The card is compulsory for all citizens of 15 and up
- Authentication with a 4 digit PIN code
- Over 700 on-line services can be accessed with the eID card
- Authentication method: 67% eID, 20% secure token and 13% with another method.
- Monthly authentication requests ranged from 1.5 to 4 million in May 2015
- Validity is 10 years (for 18-75) as of February 2014
Pragmatism and consultation with all parties involved have been the keystones for the success of this program. But probably the most remarkable aspect is that Belgium wasted no time by becoming engaged in ideological struggles on data protection.
Security is not a way to better lock up the past, but to open the door to a safer future.
It is not data that is being protected, but data flows, because we know that we need to prevent the misuse of such flows, from beginning to end.
Furthermore, Belgian citizens have a single, sovereign identity. They only have a single identity card, which provides citizens with access to all services.
In the background, privacy protection operators are actively working to protect people’s privacy, and control flows and the barriers between different areas. This essential pragmatism has generated spectacular savings in terms of the costs of managing and using secure cards.
In essence: modernity for citizens, without ideologies. In particular, this is founded on excellent regional cooperation, expanding the scale of achievements by investing in all local social services.