Safeguarding Public Service In Digital Era

Digitalization and the proliferation of service platforms are permeating all areas of our society, and the public service is not immune to this evolution. A policy paper from the EPFL Center for Digital Trust offers recommendations to maintain the quality of the Swiss public service.

Users of traditional physical public service provisions are now becoming customers of digital platforms. These platforms serve, in many cases, as intermediaries between service providers and end users, thus reshaping the classical nature of public offerings based on physical service. Although the platformization of some services may make them more efficient, losing direct contact with users and their data may have an impact on the quality of physical service. Excessive digitalization may also pose significant governance challenges for public policy, since private platform providers may prioritise commercial interests over general welfare.

To address these challenges, a deep analysis and a list of recommendations for ensuring the quality of the public service have recently been published in a policy paper at the EPFL Center for Digital Trust by EPFL Emeritus Professor Matthias Finger, whose research has been focused on areas such as the governance of large socio-technical systems and infrastructure policy, and by Melanie Kolbe-Guyot, Head of Digital Policy at C4DT.

Prof. Finger thinks that traditionally state-led sectors such as transportation, communication, energy, education, and public media are among the ones more affected by platformization. "Platforms find it easier to enter industries that are more fragmented", comments Prof. Finger.

Data protection

A major challenge concerns the data collected by these platforms. When private platform providers are the ones getting all the data, they may de facto become the ones defining the service itself. Prof. Finger adds, "On top of that, you do not know what platform providers are doing with your data. They may use them even outside the Swiss or European jurisdictions."

Another concern expressed by Prof. Finger is that, if platforms enter the public service arena, this may result in a price increase or a decline in service quality. "Infrastructures are good because the state has invested a lot of money in them. When a private company intermediates the infrastructure service, it takes a margin. Therefore, to keep the service as good as it was before the platform was introduced, the government will have to pay more or, at some point, it will be forced to reduce its quality", expresses Prof. Finger.

According to the authors, to maintain the high-quality standards of the public service, Swiss authorities need to define precise strategies to mitigate any detrimental effects digital platforms may have on areas such as fairness, accessibility and affordability, adaptability and durability, and continuous operation of traditional physical service delivery. However, how these measures must be implemented and how the Swiss government must address these challenges is still an open question. Due to the decentralised nature of Switzerland, a strong involvement of both cantonal and federal administrations is required to define a common strategy to ensure high-quality public service is maintained.

The authors also stress the importance of creating a single organisational unit at the federal level responsible for the policies and regulations of digitalization, incorporating public service as an integral part of it. This is essential in order to stay abreast of the fast-paced evolution of other European and non-European countries. "My approach is very pragmatic. If we want to maintain the quality of the public service, there are certain things we must do with the plataformized service providers, such as defining a regulatory framework in which providers must share users' data, for instance. This is not legally impossible, but it requires political will", concludes Prof. Finger.

The list of recommendations published in the policy paper include:

  • Enforce private platform operators to share users´ data with public service providers
  • Negotiate fair profit-sharing between companies and administration to contribute to financing the infrastructures enabling the service
  • Ensure accessibility and continuity of public service both physical and digital
  • Enforce price transparency and fair pricing
  • Ensure equal treatment of citizens via the appropriate regulatory framework
  • Explore "government-favoured" private platforms or state-owned alternatives
  • Investigate data spaces in key strategic sectors
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