This week, the European Commission announced an updated interoperability policy in the EU. The Commission has committed itself to adopt a Communication that introduces the European Interoperability Strategy (EIS) and an update to the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), “two key documents that promote interoperability among public administrations”, part of EUs Digital Agenda.
I have followed, and been part of, the EU work on interoperability since the early days. I worked with the Bangemann Report during my PhD research. In the late 1990s, I worked for the Swedish government, and provided policy inputs to the Lisbon strategy. Fron 2001-2005, I worked for the Danish government, and was in the IDA workgroup that created EIF v1 in 2004. I also created the first Danish National Interoperability Framework (NIF). As the updated EIF notes, NIFs are “more detailed and often prescriptive than the EIF, which operates at a higher level of abstraction, as a ‘meta framework’ and, in line with the subsidiarity principle, does not impose specific choices or obligations on the Member States”.
EIF v2 defines an interoperability framework as ”an agreed approach to interoperability for organisations that wish to work together towards the joint delivery of public services”, and notes that “within its scope of applicability, it specifies a set of common elements such as vocabulary, concepts, principles, policies, guidelines, recommendations, standards, specifications and practices”.
Quick overview of EIF v2
Chapter 2, dealing with the ‘underlying principles’, sets out general principles underpinning European public services. For example:
Underlying principle 7: Transparency
Citizens and businesses should be able to understand administrative processes. They should have the right to track administrative procedures that involve them, and have insight into the rationale behind decisions that could affect them.
Transparency also allows citizens and businesses to give feedback about the quality of the public services provided, to contribute to their improvement and to the implementation of new services.
Chapter 3 presents the ‘conceptual model for public services’, and suggests “an organising principle for designing European public services, focusing on basic services that can be aggregated to form aggregated services and help establish other European public services in the future”:
Chapter 4 on ‘interoperability levels’ covers “the different interoperability aspects to be addressed when designing a European public service and provides a common vocabulary for discussing issues that arise”. See the figure to the right.
Chapter 5 presents an approach “to facilitate cooperation among public administrations to provide a given European public service by introducing concepts of ‘interoperability agreements’, formalised specifications and open specifications”.
Chapter 6 on ‘interoperability governance’ sets out “what is needed to ensure interoperability over time when delivering a European public service and to coordinate interoperability activities across administrative levels to support the establishment of European public services”.
Key EIF observations
EIF v1 talked a lot about open standards. EIF v2 talks about ‘open specifications’, and makes it sound almost as if they prefer consortium standards to actual de jure standards (accept FRAND or royalty-free basis in a way that allows implementation in both proprietary and open source software). Besides, “public administrations may decide to use less open specifications, if open specifications do not exist or do not meet functional interoperability needs”. This basically means that the EIF endorses that the National Interoperability Frameworks (NIFs) can adapt fluffy ‘comply or explain’ rules similar to the current Danish government policy. It is also a loop hole to standardise on certain open, or closed, platforms (“Due to functional interoperability needs you all need to use Word 2010″).
EIF v2s principles are interesting reading, but leaves more questions than answers. As principles (“general rules and guidelines, intended to be enduring and seldom amended, that inform and support the way in which an organization sets about fulfilling its mission”, TOGAF), the EIF principles are pretty useless.
It so happens that the EIS document has some problems showing the document properly on my three Macs. I am not very familiar with the inner workings of the PDF format, but it seems that someone in the commission should help user “hauscbe” set his/her Windowns-based Adobe Distiller 9.0 to save a less less open standards based PDF file!
Although it is referred to a foot note and a few hints, administrations who seek a policy endorsement for running amok with “Service-Oriented Architecture” can use the EIF. The seemingly ‘innocent’ “conceptual model for public services” is, as I read it, one big endorsement of SOA and shared/common services. EIF becomes almost mysteriously vague on these issues, but EIS offers some hints:
To develop a joint vision on interoperability architecture by first defining its scope and the needs for common infrastructure services and common interface standards;
To provide guidance on architecture domains where Member States share a common interest;
To ensure the systematic reuse of architectural building blocks by the Commission when developing services to be used by the Member States. Here, existing infrastructure service components (EIIS)5 along with generic applications (IMI6, early alert systems, grant management, etc.) could be reused and rationalised. Additionally, a catalogue of architectural building blocks available for reuse by the Member States and the Commission could be set up with contributions from the EU and Member States.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the folks writing the EIF didn’t get the EIS memo; we are left to guess how they see architecture in play. With v2, EIF points to four interoperability levels – legal, organisational, semantic and technical. The organisational level includes business process alignment, organisational relationships and change management. Consequently, administrations must use an architectural approach that embraces all the levels; that would of course be enterprise architecture, I would argue. Unfortunately, rather than going that direction, EIF ends up in giving vague and uncommitted recommendations in east and west.
I haven’t seen any, official nor non-official, mentioning of the Communication/Strategy/Framework in Denmark yet, but that doesn’t surprise me, since interoperability has been the non-word of the year here.
Internationally, there are plenty of reactions. As when the original EIF was launched, much of the debate/commentary about EIF v2 is about open standards and open source. Below, I have collected some illustrative quotes:
EIF v2 is a victory for the powerful and well-funded lobbyists who have attacked the European Interoperability Framework from the start, just as was predicted at the time. It shows that the European Commission is still pathetically in the thrall of big foreign companies and their proxies: I can’t wait for Wikileaks or the new Brussels Leaks to provide us with the details of what exactly happened behind the scenes when EIFv2 was being drawn up.
Trond-Arne Undheim, Oracle Director, Standards Strategy and Policy: European Interoperability Framework – a new beginning?:
Considering the controversy, the delays, the lobbying, and the interests at stake both in the EU, in Member States and among vendors large and small, this document is pretty impressive. As with a good wine that has not yet come to full maturity, let’s say that it seems to be coming in in the 85-88/100 range, but only a more fine-grained analysis, enjoyment in good company, and ultimately, implementation, will tell.
Mark Bohannon, Red Hat Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Global Public Policy: European Interoperability Framework Supports Open Source:
Is the new EIF perfect? No. Due to heavy lobbying by vested proprietary technology interests, some key sections of the EIF have been made confusing (indeed, the definition of ‘open standards’ has been watered down from the 2004 version and no longer includes the requirement of being ‘royalty-free’). The definition of “open” standards or specifications remains a matter of some contention in the IT industry. An example of a more accurate definition of open standards can be found in the recently released India Standards Policy for E-Governance, which specifies that intellectual property should be licensed royalty-free and that any required specifications should be technology-neutral.
“EIF will help public authorities escape from the sort of technology lock-in into one single vendor that until now has been the norm across Europe,” said Openforum Europe chief executive, Graham Taylor.
Karsten Gerloff: Assessing the new European Interoperability Framework:
So what we have now is a strategy statement, without the level of detail that made EIFv1 such a useful document. But this strategy generally goes in the right direction, and it’s much more powerful than before, thanks to its official status.
I’m guessing that the change we’ll see across Europe will be slow, but that it will be continuous and very broad. EIFv1 provided a rallying point for those member states and public bodies that were interested in Free Software and Open Standards. EIFv2 is a general push for everyone to use more Open Standards, even though it contains generous get-out clauses.
What do you think?