The Protection of Personal Data and the Challenge of Electronic Modernization

  • 2016•10•03     Lisbon

    The future is the development of a safe, certified digital mailbox for each citizen

    The use of ICT tools for the organization, processes and routines of public administration has revolutionized the concept and delivery of public services in the 21st century. The gains related to effectiveness and efficiency, and the growth in quickness regarding user access are extraordinary. Who does not recall the queues at the door of the taxes authority before tax return declarations were digital only? The empowerment of this process has reduced by millions the amount of paper spent, waiting hours of citizens, working hours of employees and millions of euros of State expense. Moreover, it has freed the citizen from the tyranny of working hours.

    If there is still any doubt regarding the impact on economic development and competitiveness of public services in the digital era, all one has to do is read Malmö’s statements in 2009, the recommendations published by OECD in 2014, and the strategic plans of the European Union State Members in the area of electronic public administration.

    Despite the importance of the theme and the fact that is has gathered many world experts in electronic public administration, the IFIP EGOV-ePart 2016 conference, which took place recently at the University of Minho, has gone unnoticed by social media. The research studies presented there made it clear that there is an intense work being been carried out at international level in order to find an answer for challenges that still remain, even in countries with highly developed electronic public services, namely Scandinavian countries and Estonia. Still, as it was made clear during the discussions, we are not the only country which faces barriers regarding the efficient transfer of information between public institutions.

    A practical example: if the reader has recently requested, at a Citizen Shop, a duplicate of the driving license, he/she will note that that document which has been delivered to the citizen does not allow him/her to drive until the new driving license is issued. The duplicate request will have been accepted and processed at the Citizen Shop, however, to obtain a document that allows the citizen to drive, it will be necessary to request it at the Portuguese Institute of Mobility and Transport (IMT) as well. This occurs because the Citizen Shop does not have access to the data stored at IMT, which is be needed to confirm that the citizen is not subject to any kind of driving prohibition. Similar interoperability issues also occur during information exchange between States, namely during international crisis situations, which can have a dramatic impact on public health and economy, as it was found out during the 2008 financial crash, the potential pandemics of Ebola and influenza A, and the recent safety threats in Europe due to terrorist attacks.

    What can one expect in the near future regarding the evolution of electronic public administration? The future is the development of a safe, certified digital mailbox for each citizen, through which all communication between public institutions and the citizen will be processed. Paper exchanges between the State and its citizens will disappear almost completely, as we can already foresee in some of the policies revealed by the Simplex 2016 program: the citizens will have electronic access to all their documents, their signatures and pictures will be available electronically, they will be able to monitor by whom and how their data is being accessed to, and all documents linked with their electronic mailbox may be reused after a first system integration and certification is done. Even though there are countless benefits, the dematerialization of documents will continue to pose great challenges to the State regarding personal data protection and equal access rights.

    In the 21st century, digital exclusion has taken first row seat when it comes to equality rights, and there is no digital system that can replace careful and personal support when mandatory and needed, otherwise such behaviour will worsen social exclusion towards of the most vulnerable population, namely elderly with no informatics knowledge, people with disabilities and long-term unemployed. This is the social dimension of electronic modernization that no government can neglect.


    Written by Ana Maria Evans, FCT Research Fellow in Public Policies at Nova Information Management School, Lisbon, Portugal.

    Translation to English by Mário Peixoto ( with due authorization from the author and the original publisher (Jornal Público). The original version in Portuguese is available here.