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The European Interoperability Framework - for improved pan-European government e-services

"To implement pan-European e-government services an agreed Interoperability Framework for Europe is a prerequisite," concluded the IDA Sandhamn conference in Stockholm, organised jointly by the Swedish Presidency and the European Commission's IDA Programme.

An Interoperability Framework can be defined as an overarching set of policies, standards and guidelines that describe the way in which organisations have agreed, or should agree, to do business with each other. The emergence of the information society over the last decade has triggered two related developments. On the one hand, administrations in the Member States increasingly provide their services online. European citizens now demand integrated and interoperating electronic services that offer "one stop shops" and "no wrong doors", free of time constraints. On the other hand, citizens and enterprises are interested not only in the services and opportunities provided at a national level but also at a European level. In order to meet both demands, it is essential to ensure the interoperability of services at the pan-European level.

There are three relevant aspects that any Interoperability Framework needs to tackle: technical, semantic and organisational interoperability. Technical interoperability covers the technical issues of linking up computer systems and services by agreeing on standards for presenting, collecting, exchanging, processing and transporting information. Semantic interoperability aims at ensuring that the meaning (semantics) of exchanged information is shared by the systems that participate in the exchange of data and allows a meaningful manner of processing information. Last, organisational interoperability is concerned with defining business goals and processes and bringing about the collaboration of administrations that wish to exchange information but may have different internal organisations and structures for their operations.

At a European level, in addition to the issues described above, the Interoperability Framework needs to meet high-level policy issues such as cultural, legislative and linguistic challenges.

The European Interoperability Framework is currently being developed under the IDA Programme. It is part of the eEurope 2005 action plan and it addresses the interoperability of government e-services to citizens and enterprises at a pan-European level. It is based on the premise that each Member State has, or is in the process of developing, its national Government Interoperability Framework and therefore focuses on supplementing national interoperability frameworks by adding the pan-European dimension. It provides guidance of a general and conceptual nature. The IDA Architecture Guidelines complement it with a description of technical issues.

The initial drafting of the European Interoperability Framework was based on extensive research into the existing interoperability frameworks of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The comparison of different national systems gave an overview of the best practices that could be integrated in the European Interoperability Framework.

Since Interoperability means, above all, the "collaboration" of systems, services and people in order to deliver results, the necessity for the different stakeholders to collaborate is key. For this reason, the development of the European Interoperability Framework is being done in close collaboration with an Experts Group of representatives from Member States, Accession Countries, and EU Institutions and Agencies. But the European Interoperability Framework is not limited to public administrations and endeavours to take into account the points of view of different actors. Co-ordination of efforts at a pan-European level should ensure an open, ongoing dialogue with the market at large (administrations, citizens, businesses, suppliers). To this end, an open consultation will be considered once the first release of the European Interoperability Framework is ready and accepted by the IDA committee (planned for September 2003). Such consultation processes at a European level will be complementary to consultation at a national level.

Clearly, the dynamic nature of government e-services makes it necessary for successive versions of the European Interoperability Framework to appear on a regular basis and integrate changing developments in the field of organisational, semantic and technical interoperability. This process of constant revision is expected to lead ultimately to a set of solutions for interoperability at a pan-European level that should facilitate the provision of user-centred e-services for administrations, citizens and enterprises.

Article published in the IDA Report 18 - June 2003