8 August 2017

Opinion Sjaak Brinkkemper and Slinger Jansen

The government should not pose as an ICT company, ICT researchers state

In the beginning of July, Minister Plasterk ended the programme for the realisation of the Basic Persons Registry (Dutch: Basisregistratie Personen, BRP), the central database for all Dutch citizens. Exceeding costs, lacking functionality and no delivery for a few years are the considerations that resulted in the BRP programme being put on hold in reflection mode. In this opinion piece, ICT researchers Sjaak Brinkkemper and Slinger Jansen call on the government to arrange ICT development differently.

“ICT development by the government always turns out to be problematic: the communication system C2000 of the police, the outdating systems of the Dutch Tax and Customs Authority assessed by the Court of Audits, the SPEER system for materials and transport for Defence. These are some examples of headache issues of the government that involve billions of euros.

Every time, the question emerges whether or not the government is capable of developing such systems internally. Wouldn't it be better to leave this to market parties? The government itself does not build offices, does not build industrial sites such as the Maasvlakte, does not pave streets. The government functions as a commissioner, and hires private parties for execution and management.

The same should be applied to ICT for the government. And that is why we suggest a radically different approach.

Let government ICT that is suitable for multiple countries be developed by international market parties. Registration of citizens barely differs from country to country. Adjust the specifications to an international or European context. Let the open market break into this, so the costs can be shared and much more technical capacity is available. That is after all how the countless software packages for, among other things, accounting and staff administration have been developed. Custom-made products are simply expensive and way too unpredictable.

Disconnect the software applications from the data. Cloud technology enables this very well these days. The government can then manage and protect the data of every citizen in a central platform. Companies in the ecosystem subsequently build their own applications on the platform under guidance from the government. This way provides more possibilities for reusing and sharing software within the ecosystem and participants within it are better registered. The data remains property of the state, the software remains property of the ICT company, with well-defined linking standards. The government becomes the conductor of its own orchestra.

Implement new government systems in an incremental way. The gradual introduction of the Dutch OV-chipkaart (public transport chip card) is a good example. In the software industry, systems are usually built up gradually: first a minimal set of basic functions, followed by adding to them incrementally. This way, a system can prove itself before it can induce headaches.

Build up knowledge on best practices for system development for the public sector. What you don't learn, you'll never know. There is hardly any knowledge gain and research into the optimal arrangement of automation in the government. Which approach turned out to be successful? For an example, the new additions to child benefits in the 1980s were very successful. And aside from that: which technology works the best for large-scale public systems? In education, the student administration and learning tools, even those for mathematics, are operated through the cloud without a hitch. From 2016 onwards, the Dutch Judiciary Council gradually implements digital proceeding in which judges and lawyers get online access to fully digital files.

It is of course easy to blame one single party, because the ICT industry also has to take a long, hard look at itself. There is a big deficit of knowledge and specialists, and in an overheated market, it is difficult to take a step back and realise that it is our mutual responsibility. We must prevent large quantities of outdated government systems that can only be maintained with external knowledge. There needs to be a market in which ICT companies can deliver and maintain durable products, while the government busies itself with implementation and policy.

We want an open debate on a totally different approach to automation in the government. This is a first step. Together with our colleagues and students, we are happy to participate in this debate. Everyone is invited: after all, we all benefit from it.”

Prof Dr Sjaak Brinkkemper and Dr Slinger Jansen, Chair of Software Production, Utrecht University.

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