Podcast 🎧 & blog: Why is Digital Sovereignty Important for Governments?

20.04.2022 | Federico Plantera

Less than a month to go to the 2022 e-Governance Conference. To mark this countdown milestone, we called back a known voice of the Digital Government Podcast and the Conference, introducing the ever-more-pressing theme of digital sovereignty.

Taking the floor is Paul Timmers, a scholar at various European universities and former director at the European Commission for e‑government, health and ageing, future cities, and many more things digital.

With increased digitalization, governments are met with new and changing sets of challenges – over trust, service delivery, cybersecurity. Here is a sneak peek into what his keynote and the panel discussion he will moderate will sound like, with a great conversation on current and fundamental issues urging decision makers to keep sovereignty in focus for the information age.

What is digital sovereignty?

In essence, it is about “What we consider important for us, that belongs to us. Be it territory, its people, our values, culture.” And this is a rather classic definition of sovereignty, the one that can be found in political science baseline texts too. “But it can also be things that we consider important in the digital world, for example our health data, which could be seen as a sovereign asset. Something important for us, our future, and that of our children,” Timmers says.

Intended as such, including digital assets too, we may find sovereignty to be increasingly at risk. The asset class to protect is related to the digital world and what happens in that online space, but it is not limited to, for example, information or data. Infrastructure plays a role, as do foreign geopolitical actors interested in meddling with another nation’s sovereign digital assets.

What needs to be sheltered from a new set of threats ranges from “Tangible to intangible elements, such as the knowledge upon which we are building up the jobs of the future, our intellectual property. But also our mobile networks, energy grids, transport systems.” Anything that matters to safeguarding our countries’ strategic autonomy, including its digital sphere too.


A matter of trust and legitimacy, both internal and external

On par with its more clear and visible components, sovereignty is enabled by another key element – legitimacy. This can be internal, based on the relationship between the state and its citizens, or external, when countries are recognized by others. “Especially today, we see that external legitimacy is threatened in a number of cases. But internal legitimacy is at stake too, because there are many cases where that necessary trust between citizens and the state is breaking down,” Timmers warns.

So how do governments ensure that they are internally legitimate? “They need to provide good services, democracy needs to function, citizens need to see that their voice is heard, that there is fair treatment before the law.” And we see all these things change – regarding opportunities unlocked, but also new risks – based on the digital developments we have seen in the past years.

“Governments are using data about citizens to provide services, but this data needs to be analyzed. Imagine that you are using some artificial intelligence for that, and that it has some in-built discrimination or bias. Then citizens might feel like they are not being treated fairly before the law, particularly when it comes to getting unemployment support, or accessing other social benefits,” Timmers says.


There is no single way to go. But we all must find one

The approach that governments around the world will adopt in the face of these challenges is likely to create different clusters of countries, based on the balance to strike between individual rights and centralization. On the one hand, this means that there is no single, unique way to approach the issue. It also means though, that as Europe, we shall find our own.

“I would say that one of the keys to answer that question is actually in this balance between personal sovereignty and state sovereignty. It is about the relationship between citizens with their autonomy, the respect for their personal life, and the respect for diversity and the common good that we have in Europe. But we also do expect governments to take on their own responsibilities, do a good job. Which is to provide public services, take care of those that are more vulnerable in society, protect the infrastructure that delivers democracy and justice.”

“These are all things that individuals alone cannot do,” Timmers concludes. So to say, though, it is something that each region and culture of e-government must find its way to. In light of all the opportunities granted by digital service delivery and participation, maintaining one country’s sovereignty depends also on the management of risks that these tools may expose us to.


Interested in more? Join the e-Governance Conference on 10 – 12 May to listen to the keynote of Paul Timmers and panel discussion ‘ Next step: Digital Sovereignty – How Is it Possible?’ featuring Michel Paulin, CEO of OVHcloud and Lisa Talia Moretti, Digital Sociologist at the Ministry of Justice of the United Kingdom.