The Advance of Digital Public Services in Europe

The pandemic prompted many industries to focus more on the customer experience. In the retail & wholesale sector, companies used alternative sales channels and developed engaging digital customer experiences to fuel online sales. Once the lockdowns ended, the customer experience (CX) was again at the center of attention for retailers as they had to attract customers back to their brick-and-mortar stores. Even the manufacturing industry has seen a surge in initiatives related to online commerce and the customer experience, both in B2B and B2C.

We observe a similar trend in the European public sector. During the lockdowns, governments had to guarantee the continuity of public services while reducing the risk of infection for civil servants and citizens. To cope with the situation, many governments turned to technology. On the one hand, governments tried to digitalize as many processes as possible so that people would no longer have to turn up in person for specific procedures. On the other hand, technology helped to manage visitor flows, for example, by requiring online registration for a set time slot. Many governments have continued investing in this area as they realize that citizens demand an improved experience and easier access to government services, both of which can be achieved with the help of digital technology.

Across Europe, governments are at different stages in offering digital public services. The United Kingdom, for instance, has been working on this for more than 10 years, launching GOV.UK in 2011. GOV.UK is an information website designed to provide a single point of access to general information and government services. GOV.UK replaced the websites of hundreds of public bodies. Interestingly, the website targets not only UK citizens, but also civil servants, i.e., GOV.UK provides helpful information for the various departments, such as procurement guidelines, testimonials on how other departments are testing or deploying digital technology (e.g., AI) to improve processes and services, and more.

While the UK is a prime example of how public services can be provided online, it is certainly not the only one. Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, and Germany, have increased their investments in digital public services, especially since the pandemic hit. Still, there are great discrepancies between countries. While Germany has been slower at digitizing its processes and modernizing its governmental IT infrastructure, Estonia has developed its IT systems since the 1990s. This not only culminated in the Baltic state offering digital public services early on, but also in the development of state-issued digital identities for citizens.

To deal with these discrepancies, the European Union has defined strategies and frameworks related to the digitalization of public bodies (e.g., A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, European Digital Identity). The goal is to provide clear frameworks for member states on how to best employ technology and ensure that the systems of the different countries are interoperable.

Nonetheless, we believe that the development of digital public services will only become more relevant in 2 or 3 years’ time. Most countries still need to work on their IT modernization and will need more time to advance the digitalization of the public sector. What’s more, the current threat from Russia has prompted many governments to focus on IT security instead.