EU-funded research has played a key role in transforming Europe's public services in recent years, but more can be done to ensure they benefit fully from developments in information technology (IT), according to a recently published study on the sector.
While making a valuable contribution to Europe, the findings of a 30-month study, measuring the impact on the public sector of EU-funded research, show that more could be done to match projects' objectives to the reality on the ground.
|The intangible benefits of EU-funded research, such as building lasting links between partners, are as important to the public sector as the tangible ones.|
The study, called ‘Building the knowledge economy in public services: the role of EU research', was carried out by a team of European researchers, who analysed the socio-economic and industrial impacts of a selection of projects carried out under two European Commission schemes: the Telematics Application Programme II (TAP), funded under its Fourth Framework Programme (FP4), and the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme, part of FP5.
A total of 134 projects in the public services sector were surveyed while in-depth case studies were carried out on 19 TAP and eight IST projects, most of which ended some time in 2003. “What we discovered was truly eye-opening,” explains Bea Ballero at Databank Consulting in Italy, the technical manager of the MEASURE project that conducted the study. “Our findings show that EU-funded initiatives played a strategic role in transforming research in the public sector, increasing innovation, building networks of multidisciplinary and multinational collaboration, and creating a new mindset about how to do things.”
The greatest success of the TAP and IST programmes, the study indicates, has been their ability to stimulate collaboration between academia, industry and the public sector, ensuring a user-centred approach to the development of IT.
Window seat to research-in-action
Reported in IST Results, the IST's gateway to research in action, the study highlights how collaboration in these research projects often leads to the creation of extensive networks of former partners continuing to work together. Around 10% of the TAP and IST projects studied saw their results implemented upon conclusion, with more than half of the project participants describing the main results as intangible – suggesting the research process was as important as the end results.
“The main benefits they saw were things like increased knowledge, enhanced networking and improved competitiveness,” Ballero told IST Results. “The main reason that many results failed to be immediately implemented was because participants had underestimated the difficulty of implementing IT solutions in the public sector.”
Even though there are “islands of innovation” – spinning off from the project results – the study concludes that a better balance needs to be found between “project objectives and reality” to ensure more widespread implementation. That, combined with greater flexibility to allow project goals to be updated in line with technological and market changes, would improve the social benefits of research, the study indicates.
In his foreword to the report, Paul Timmers, head of the European Commission's e-Government Unit, notes that the study will inform future EU research in public services. “There is presently a lively discussion on future IST research in general, and future research for public services in particular, in the perspective of the Seventh Framework Programme,” he points out.
The study highlights the IST programme's role as an interface between research, industry and user organisations, balancing research and policy goals in the “path towards a user-oriented Information Society”.