Features: October 8th, 2002

It’s Holland Versus England In The Race For E-provision

By John Thornton

For centuries, our friends in the Low Countries have taken a slightly different approach to life. The fact they still wear clogs and get their power from windmills is actually quite admirable. It may cause some vague amusement over in Blighty but both examples are extremely practical ways of living. They illustrate that, as a race, the Dutch have an uncanny nack of making the most of their surroundings and quickly removing any obstacles which may arise. They are also great problem-solvers. This has been proved time and time again. Nothing illustrates this better than those famous dykes. The country is full of them.

When faced with the pressing problem that their entire land mass was regularly being flooded, the Dutch people wasted absolutely no time in resorting to what was a very technical solution. When the first dyke was built in 2AD, the rest of Europe looked on with incredulity. But today this solution has stood the test of time. Back in Blighty, the approach to flood defences has been very different. Naturally the relevant UK authorities had been thinking about how to keep the country dry, but apart from a few token sea walls, little had actually been done.


Moving swiftly forward, we arrive in 2002 and a very different picture emerges. Yet interestingly, the cultural approach to the age-old problem in both countries has hardly changed. Only a few months ago, and again to the amusement of many, the Dutch launched their very own flooding early-warning system. Like the dykes, this is a technical solution which requires some beating. Now if the Dutch equivalent of Joe Public wants to know whether his precious piece of land is likely to suddenly turn into a lake or river, all he has to do is subscribe to a Government-sponsored SMS alert package. By paying a few euros per month, the individual is subscribing to a foolproof system which will text him or her with an early warning flood alert. For those whose livelihoods and property depend on the whims of the weather, this innovative service is a must. It is of little surprise then to discover that the majority of the Dutch population are buying into this.

As we know, lots of businesses and homeowners in the UK have been harshly hit by recent waves of flooding. So how is the UK Government responding? The answer, we are told, lies in updating an all-important national flood database. Stage 1 has just been completed and will start to capture all the flood data gathered from around the country to help plan ahead and prevent future flood damage. The UK is concentrating on nationwide standardising. Even what is happening in the Environment Agency reflects a cultural change, getting the area and regional offices to implement standard procedures and processes.


Another case in point is statistics. In the UK, national statistics are still handcrafted and collated into physical paper reports. It is only then that they are available electronically. The Dutch however, provide a much neater model, automating the analysis from stage one, thus providing a much more refined output at a faster rate. In fact, the Dutch have really got this sorted. They have developed and produced a system that is Web-enabled removing the need for handcrafted, regularly generated statistics. This allows their statisticians to concentrate on new and complex statistical procedures as they arise. They are therefore able to do more and be more flexible.

What is most impressive again, however, is the high percentage of businesses and individuals who have eagerly bought into this publicly-developed system. Across all walks of life, such as agriculture, industry and commerce to name just three, statistics are being collected and collated electronically. There are many advantages to this. At the very least, every Dutch government department produces its figures electronically. For an inquiring electorate eager to lap up information, this is a particularly helpful innovation. Whereas in the UK, all this information is only usually available via expensively-produced Government booklets.

The Dutch agriculture sector is worth a closer look. Incredibly more than 80% of Dutch farmers have access to computers and are able to file yields and answer questionnaires electronically. Whether the UK will catch up is an interesting question. As these examples have proved, the Dutch are keen on achieving the quick wins, and they always make best use of the technology available. But is it all really about technical issues? Much of the answer lies in cultural change.

Slow culture shift

The public view is that most UK civil servants still fit the stereotype, i.e. the majority work a 40-hour week in a stuffy central London office and carry a battered briefcase. For years the work ethic has been the same, and to be honest, not much has ever changed. And that’s because it hasn’t had to. But faced with a fast-approaching deadline for e-government and everything it encompasses, the beleaguered Civil Service, together with all the government agencies, are being forced to accept a vastly new and different approach.

A recent CMG-sponsored survey found that while 95% of civil servants in Scotland have Internet access at their desks, they are deluged by the scourge of the government sector – mountains of paperwork. A staggering 84% of the civil servants still don’t have access to electronic records. Why is this staggering? Because we are talking about an environment which devotes vast amounts of time and energy to working with lengthy case note folders and files.

Ultimately then, while many Government departments in the UK and in Holland are well equipped to watch the 2005 deadline for electronic service delivery come and go, in reality, much of the day-to-day working practices smack of the 1970s. The real challenge is sooner than we think – it is vital to stress that the 2005 deadline can only be achieved if departments first meet the rarely-mentioned earlier 2004 deadline for implementing electronic records.

Of course it is not as simple as getting everyone working with electronic records. If this step change is going to be at all successful, the visible technical changes have to be accompanied by a cultural shift in the way of working. But it’s not all doom and gloom. In the UK, departments such as the DTI, Cabinet Office and MOD are currently automating their working practices to make information more accessible. For those in the know it extends far beyond the IT infrastructures – it’s all about change management – controlled measured change in business processes which meets the requirements of the civil service as a whole.

What technology allows is for whole layers of management to be taken out. This is something the civil service has failed to do and that is because of the culture. While the right training is of paramount importance, the role for the IT people is important in communicating how the technology can realise benefits in day-to-day working patterns not providing more new and expensive gadgets with little practical advantage.

An average civil servant will, quite rightly, demand to see the practical benefits of the new technology to his or her daily routine before wholeheartedly embracing it. Another problem is that because we are talking about Government, nothing HAS to change. There is a view amongst some civil servants that if the deadline is missed, it is missed, end of story. In the same way, Government persists in using outdated methods of procurement purely because no-one is forcing it to do otherwise. Quite simply, the culture has to become more rigorous.

Yet Dutch and UK differences will remain and security is yet another case in point. And surprise, surprise, it’s another question of culture. In the UK, the powers that be have traditionally concentrated upon PKI – Public Key Infrastructure. Being one of the largest users of credit cards it of course makes sense. Simply, it means that those in the UK use numbers and codes to access secure applications, such as the withdrawal of cash from an ATM. The UK, in its wisdom, chose PKI on the basis that it provides wider applications in the future.

Much more of an issue for the civil liberties protagonists however, is the Dutch approach to security. Again opting for the more technical approach, the Dutch have concentrated on the use of biometrics. By this method, thumb prints, retina prints, and the like, are all the rage.

It seems likely that some of the next round of UK Census figures will be collected electronically. Although this pushes the UK towards the Dutch model, it is unlikely the UK will catch up by deadline day. However in the long term it’s a bit like the famous Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare. The Dutch have certainly started like the hare, but as the UK may eventually prove, plodding along at a tortoise pace may indeed win you the race. In terms of eGovernment today, the UK is certainly lagging behind. But embracing the entirety of the required cultural shift is likely to, in the years ahead, prove the correct approach.

John Thornton is a senior management consultant at CMG Government sector