The Path to the Digital Decade creates room for collaboration to build Digital Public Space

January 3, 2023

The 2030 Policy Programme ‘Path to the Digital Decade’, one of the tools required to implement the EU Digital Decade Strategy, was approved by the Council in mid-December 2022. It provides a mechanism for tracking progress toward the targets identified in the Commission’s Digital Compass communication and establishes a legal framework for multi-country projects. The program is intended to ensure that the EU meets its digital transformation goals in accordance with EU values. When we previously commented on the proposal for the program, we highlighted that it focused too heavily on quantitative targets rather than prioritizing societal objectives. Some of this criticism still holds. At the same time, the program creates opportunities for implementing the vision of a European Digital Public Space.

Article 3 outlines the program’s overall goals. The first objective listed in this provision concerns promoting a

human-centered, fundamental-rights-based, inclusive, transparent, and open digital environment where secure and interoperable digital technologies and services observe and enhance Union principles, rights and values and are accessible to all, everywhere in the Union.

Interestingly the reference to a “fundamental-rights-based digital environment” and interoperability are new additions to the initial proposal. Moreover, the program aims, among other goals, to ensure that the EU institutions and Member States cooperate in developing a comprehensive and sustainable ecosystem of interoperable digital infrastructure. While the ambition is commendable, as far as the purpose of that infrastructure is concerned, the focus is again on market-oriented goals and not so much on promoting democratic life. This is primarily due to a narrow policy vision, which this mechanism inherits from the Digital Compass framework.

In the opinion on the proposal for the decision, we argued that while the decision creates a framework for collaboration between the Commission and the Member States, it will impact the entire Digital Decade initiative. As a result, greater civic participation in program decisions should be ensured, particularly concerning the yearly “State of the Digital Decade” process, which involves reviewing the strategy’s goals and formulating recommendations for its continued implementation. It is, therefore, worth noting that Article 9 now includes a consultation mechanism with private and public stakeholders, including civil society. This will serve to gather data and develop policies, measures, and actions for the program’s implementation. The results of the consultations will be made public.

The program aims to ensure that online participation in democratic life is possible for everyone (Article 3, letter g). In achieving its objective, the Commission and the Member States, when cooperating, should consider the digital principles and rights set out in the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles (Recital 4). Yet, the concept of a Digital Public Space is nowhere to be found. We’ve argued in the past that Digital Public Space should be considered an overarching positive vision for the digital strategy: one based on the principle of enhancing the role of public and civic actors in the digital environment and developing public digital infrastructures. The program lacks this vision. Digital infrastructure is described in terms that emphasize meeting individual needs more so than fostering civic organization and cooperation. Given this understanding of the digital infrastructure and its role, it is unsurprising that when the decision provides examples of key public services (defined as essential services provided by public entities to natural persons during major life events), it refers to situations such as finding a job, studying, owning or driving a car, or starting a business, but not to forms of civic participation.

Nonetheless, the key targets related to digital infrastructure and the multi-country mechanism allow Member States to collaborate in developing the services and platforms that are essential building blocks of Digital Public Space that go beyond this narrow vision. The principle mentioned in Recital 21 — that when public funds are used, society and businesses must gain the most value — is significant in this context. The idea that taxpayers should get their money’s worth when public funds are used is among the issues highlighted in our draft white paper.

Overall, despite the lack of an overarching vision, the decision opens up some opportunities for institutions interested in collaborating to establish Digital Public Space. One is the requirement to consult civil society when developing recommended policies, measures, and actions for the program’s implementation. The multi-country project’s framework is also well suited for establishing a strong European program for digital public infrastructures. Much will also depend on how far the EU institutions and Member States are guided in their actions by the goal outlined in Article 3 letter a, i.e., “the creation of a human-centered, fundamental-rights-based, inclusive, transparent, and open digital environment based on interoperable technologies and services.”

Zuzanna Warso