The ‘Path to the Digital Decade’ needs a better destination

September 17, 2021

On the 15th of September, the European Commission published its Proposal for a Decision establishing the “Path to the Digital Decade” 2030 Policy Programme. This policy programme is one of the instruments needed to implement the Digital Decade Strategy that the Commission had unveiled earlier this year. Once adopted by the Council and the Parliament, the proposed decision will provide mechanisms for tracking progress towards the targets identified in the Commission’s Digital Compass. It also established a legal framework for Multi-Country projects, intended to enable the Member States and the Commission to collaborate on achieving these challenges. The Commissions sees such collaborations as crucial in achieving the targets it has set itself:

“To deliver the European vision for the Digital Decade, digital capacities are needed in the four areas of the Digital Compass, which can only be delivered if Member States and the EU pool resources.”

This ambition should also be read in the context of the Recovery & Resilience Facility, which requires Member States to spend a minimum of 20% on objectives related to the digital transition.  As an implementation framework, the “Path to the Digital Decade” contains few surprises. The targets that the Commission had identified in the initial Digital Decade strategy remain unchanged. In the justification part of the proposal, the Commission acknowledges some of the shortcomings that we and others had pointed out in reaction to the initial version of the strategy, noting that:

“… some respondents also underlined that the contribution to higher order societal objectives should be prioritised making sure that the impact of the digital transformation to societal objectives should be regularity assessed as the quality and direction of the digital growth is also important, and needs to be ensured through strategic priorities and principles that will be used alongside quantitative indicators. Many underlined that it is important to take into account and have a better assessment of the environmental impacts of digitalisation in the digital transformation, in order to reduce them while at the same time making digital technologies supportive of the green transition.”

Despite this acknowledgement, the proposal does not follow up on these suggestions. Instead of prioritizing societal objectives, the proposed policy program confirms the original approach based on the four cardinal points (digital skills, digital infrastructure, digitalization of businesses and of public services), each of which is underpinned only by a series of quantitative targets.

It is clear that the Commission sees these quantitative targets as necessary enablers for the digital transition, and as providing a framework for cooperation with the Member States. Still, it remains unclear how other parts of the Digital Decade framework will build on this enabling aspect of digital growth, to secure societal objectives. As we have argued previously, the sole  focus on technology derived quantitative targets will not be enough here:

The EU digital strategy for the next decade should be derived from the societal outcomes that it is intended to achieve. […] These must include a commitment to deploy digital technologies to enable a green transformation of the economy, as a means to reduce inequality and increase participation, as a means to increase Europe’s digital self determination and as a means to support democratic norms and values. The past decade has shown that such outcomes will not be realised by leaving the digital realm to market forces alone or by focussing on linear technological progress.

Despite its focus on the Digital Compass targets, the proposed “Path to the Digital Decade” leaves room for including more meaningful objectives. This is because the Commission considers the instruments proposed now and in the upcoming Declaration on Digital Principles as a set of “mutually-reinforcing set of components”. These should operate in close coordination to ensure the success of the Digital Decade. The proposal foresees that the progress towards achieving the Digital Compass’ targets should be reviewed together with Member States’ compliance with the upcoming Digital Principles. Depending on how much focus the final Digital Principles place on higher order societal outcomes (such as the green transition, reducing inequality, increasing participation and investing in public digital infrastructures), this can still result in a substantial strengthening of the overall Digital Decade strategy.

This also means that until the Digital Principles are on the table it will be difficult to really assess the ambition and fitness for purpose of the proposed path to the Digital Decade. Both the European Parliament and the Member States should take this into account when determining their position.  To ensure that the Path to the Digital Decade does indeed lead Europe into the direction of a more human-centred, sustainable and values-based digital future, it is also important that there will be more meaningful civil society and academic engagement in its review and governance frameworks. Despite the fact that the decision establishes a framework for cooperation between the Commission and Member States, this coordination mechanism will have an impact on the whole Digital Decade effort. For this reason, greater civic participation should be ensured, especially around the yearly “State of the Digital Decade” process, which entails the review of Digital Decade objectives and formulation of recommendations for further implementation of the strategy.