Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The new European Interoperability Framework (EIF) – the attempt of an interpretation

It is a typical phenomenon of political and societal revolutions that they are followed by some period of restoration. This was the case with the English Civil War and Revolution of the 1640s leading to the assassination of Charles I. in 1649; the Restoration brought Charles II. and James II. into place – until again the Stuarts were kicked out in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was the case with the French Revolution of 1789 which eventually evolved into the Napoleonic Empire and later on into the Bourbon Restoration. And it can also be seen by the 1968 revolution of young people everywhere in the Western world that was followed by some restoration and consolidation in the 1980s up until recently. Sometimes the restoration is more radical and drastical. Sometimes it is more kind of a consolidation and conciliation. Yet, the basic mentalities and ideas that had led to the revolutionary actions always prevailed and on the long run led to drastic changes of states, governments and societies.

Don't worry, I'm not going to write a history of the world here. Yet, the analogy stroke me and I was wondering in how far it applies when reading the new version of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) which was published by the European Commission shortly before Christmas as annex 2 to the Communication “Towards interoperability for European public services” (COM(2010) 744). Annex 1 is the higher level European Interoperability Strategy document (EIS).

The EIF v1 as published by the Commission in 2004 was revolutionary. I said so before in various blog entries. It courageously pushed for openness for pan-European eGovernment services taking a strong stance on open standards and promoting open source to be treated on equal footing with proprietary offerings. It had enormous impact within Europe and beyond, inspiring a lot of national interoperability frameworks and policy making worldwide. In other words: it set the scene of what modern requirements on eGovernment infrastructures and on software interoperability in general need to be.

Naturally, EIF v1 also caught a good many players by surprise, most of all those who were not yet ready to operate within the new general paradigm of openness, who were not yet ready to transform and adapt some new equilibrium between openness and proprietary. And for half a dozen years a heavy, sometimes battle-like debate followed – including a lot of nonsense and FUD that were spread.

Now the new EIF in combination with the Communication and the EIS is a clever and an extremely  balanced document. It is certainly not revolutionary at all. It does not attempt to pursue new horizons, nor move to the next level of interoperability and openness. But it is not a manifestation of a tough restoration, either. It is more a conciliation. For sure, it makes a lot of concessions to those who did attack the EIF v1 and thus moves a step back from the former revolutionary spirit. Yet, it provides a basis to move on effectively with the implementation and realization of interoperability in the area of eGovernment services after all these years of battling and debate. Thus it has the potential to prevent a period of restoration, to prevent the risk of turning back time and of lost years. It has the potential to manoeuvre the issue of eGovernment interoperability into more settled waters, yet keep the momentum and eventually drive the technical implementation.

Looking at the new EIF in a bit more detail I'd like to follow on three aspects:

The new EIF makes a good many concessions in this respect. The strong stance on openness that characterised EIF v1 has been attenuated. The term open standard, so widely used by industry and governments worldwide, is no longer used in the EIF. Instead it now talks about “formalised specifications”. And the strong requirement for Royalty-free licensing has been changed and also FRAND is now mentioned as being appropriate provided that the implementation in open source is possible. But there is no explicit chapter on Open Source and its use and benefit for eGovernment and the public sector in general.

At the same time, however, the notion of openness is reinforced. It is seen as a very broad basic principle for public services. There is the clear recommendation for public services to “aim for openness” (Recommendation 6 of the EIF). And very correctly the EIF mentions the example of the internet and world wide web and the positive effect open specifications (in other words: open standards) have had in this context. Hence recommendation 22 continues along the lines of openness stressing that “when establishing European public services, public administrations should prefer open specifications, taking due account of the coverage of functional needs, maturity and market support”. And the EIF proposes that public authorities should apply objective criteria including openness when selecting specifications and standards and cooperate with the respective communities in case of standardisation gaps.

A further aspect of openness is technology, or better: product neutrality. Here also the EIF is very strong in requiring that “Public administrations should not impose any specific technological solution on citizens, businesses and other administrations when establishing European public services” (Recommendation 7).

The new EIF puts very strong emphasis on interoperability. Compared to EIF v1 it has extended the scope of interoperability to further levels like legal and organisational interoperability. It stresses the importance of standards and specifications for interoperability and puts that in a clear context. Even though it makes some concessions when talking about exceptional support of competing specifications (section 5.1) and about “interoperability facilitators” (section But it leaves no doubt that “Public administrations, when establishing European public services, should base interoperability agreements on existing formalised specifications, or, if they do not exist, cooperate with communities working in the same areas” (Recommendation 20).

This, by the way, also emphasises the need for European public authorities to use specifications from fora/consortia and to cooperate with such bodies developing global open standards. In this respect the EIF supports the general strategy as expressed in the Commission Communication (and in the EU Digital Agenda) regarding “the rules on implementation of ICT standards in Europe to allow use of certain ICT fora and consortia standards […] and on providing guidance to the link between ICT standardisation and public procurement to help public authorities to use standards to promote efficiency and reduce lock-in” (Communication – section 3.1).

Service orientation:
The new EIF takes a major step forward in requiring “a component-based service model” for European public services (Recommendation 9). SOAs are state-of-the-art technology that benefits from interoperability and the use of open standards, promotes fair competition as well as the possibility for continuous improvement and extension and thus fosters competitiveness and innovation. Therefore, the new EIF puts a strong focus on open infrastructures and architectures as a base requirement for eGovernment implementations. Again, this is made very clear in the Commission Communication where it is said that the EIF lays down “the concept of interoperability agreements, based on standards and open platforms” (Communication – section 3.1).

In my opinion, these three aspects above show that the new EIF together with the Commission Communication and the EIS provide a round framework for moving ahead with eGovernment public services in Europe. No doubt, they provide some level of consolidation. But this might exactly be what is needed after the years of debate.

The new EIF is certainly not a manifestation of some turn-around restoration – to take up my starting point again. Far from it. It is very clever by conceding that there might be exceptional cases where full openness or genuine interoperability might not be able to achieve straight away. But it is firm in sticking to the key original “revolutionary” principle of openness – which is even extended. And the new EIF complements this basic principle with relevant new aspects, most notably in the areas of interoperability and of service orientation.

What is important now is the implementation of the new EIF European-wide, to walk to talk. In my opinion, and in addition to the actions listed in the documents, this means the establishment and execution of some key actions. Here's an initial list of four that come to my mind:

1. Drive the development and implementation of open infrastructures for public services which may require the necessary re-engineering of processes.

2. Ensure that the legal framework in Europe is modernised for ICT by allowing the direct use and referencing of fora and consortia standards provided that they meet a certain set of openness criteria. 

3. In the context of the EIF and public services, include interoperability, or even better: demonstrated interoperability, as a key requirement in EU policy making and public procurement.

4. In the context of the EIF and public services, foster the implementation of open specifications with multiple implementations on the market place by referencing them in public procurement and in EU policies.

This new EIF provides the proper framework for a boost of public services. Some national interoperability frameworks are already available to complement the higher level EIF with concrete national actions. In 2011 the time has come now to take a quantum leap and move on to more and better public services in Europe.

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