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Digital ministers: What are they good for?

Digital ministers: What are they good for?

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Digital ministers: What are they good for?

These days, it seems no European government is complete without at least one minister whose title includes the word “digital.”

France has one. Italy and Spain have them, too. Most recently, the Dutch and German governments appointed their first digital ministers — signifying they too had entered the online age and knew how to speak the language of Google and Facebook. Amid the enthusiasm, though, most leaders seem to have overlooked a nagging question: What exactly is a digital minister meant to do? 

While the title implies some sort of authority over digital matters, that notion evaporates on closer examination: The big bazooka of digital enforcement — competition law — is firmly in the hands of enforcers like Margrethe Vestager at the European Commission or Benoit Coeuré in France, who jealously guard their power and their on-stage moments. 

Online regulation of matters like harmful content is a promising domain for digital ministers. But in many cases, leaders deem big digital laws like the EU’s Digital Services Act so essential to national interests that they centralize much of the decision-making around them in their own offices.

More senior ministers routinely handle acts of direct government authority themselves, such as when French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire personally announced an order to suspend the operations of e-commerce website Wish. This leaves Europe’s cohort of digital ministers having to invent their jobs as they go, dancing between poles of actual authority — a task they have handled with varying degrees of success.

Junior position

France’s Cédric O took on the job in April 2019 as a secretary of state, a junior minister position, where he’s positioned under Le Maire. Highly political files, like France’s campaign for a digital tax, were led by Le Maire, not by O. Other Cabinet members and President Emmanuel Macron have stepped in as well on domains that O was keen to claim, like startups. The president himself in June presented France’s plan to foster 10 European tech giants valued at €100 billion by 2030.

Some French tech advocates, like startup organization France Digitale, would like to see things work differently in the next government. “We would like to have a full-fledged minister regarding the digital,” said Maya Noel, director general of France Digitale. “For a long time now, we had different secretaries of state, but never a minister. Digital is so important that today, we need to have a minister who is at all the meetings and who puts [the] subject on top of the list.”

She cuts O some slack, though, claiming his junior position is compensated by more informal influence: “He has a special relationship with the president, as he was the treasurer of the campaign of La République en Marche, and previously he was an adviser of the president. I think today Cédric O has quite a strong influence as secretary of state.”

Germany’s digital minister, Volker Wissing, however, starts his journey one step further — acting in a more senior position and with a stronger mandate than his (sort of) predecessor in Angela Merkel’s government, former Minister of State for Digitization Dorothée Bär.

Bär was frequently criticized for her lack of progress, which she countered by pointing to a lack of resources. “It wasn’t just Dorothée Bär; it was others within the chancellery who had a lot of clout — but it still didn’t work,” said Tyson Barker, head of technology at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Mainly because it wasn’t a priority.”

Even with a more senior mandate, Wissing will have to coordinate a lot with others, including with new leader Olaf Scholz’s chancellery.

Digital minds

The question, then, is what digital ministers can do when more senior government officials regularly step on their turf, and when their own tech acumen may be wanting.

Nadine Dorries, who became Britain’s 13th digital secretary in 14 years, is hardly known for her tech chops. Dorries once tweeted that she let her staff use her login details all the time, betraying a worrying lack of cybersecurity know-how for someone charged with setting Britain’s digital agenda.

She may have gotten the nod for other reasons. Critics argue that as an outspoken outsider known for grabbing headlines, she’s been placed in a department — Digital, Culture, Media and Sport — that gives her free rein to wage Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s culture war. 

Across the Channel, other digital officials face similar remarks over their fitness for the role.

Belgium’s Mathieu Michel was criticized upon his appointment in October 2020 for his poorly designed personal website and for not being much of a social media user. The Francophone also struggled to speak Dutch during the presentation of his policy program — which is a good way to annoy half of Belgium. (Michel is the brother of European Council President Charles Michel, also a former prime minister of Belgium.)

More than a year later, Michel knows all too well what he can do — and especially what he can’t. Major digital policy domains are off-limits: Cybersecurity, for example, is the competency of Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. For that reason, Michel’s quite humble about his job. “I don’t have the arrogance to say to others what they should do,” he told POLITICO — adding that “a secretary of state doesn’t have the same weight as a minister.”

So, what’s on Michel’s agenda? He summarizes his job as “seeking convergence.”

“The courts digitize, the police digitizes … everyone develops their own systems. But digitization needs convergence because you have the citizen at the center, who doesn’t want specific tools. A digital minister must seek convergence, that all those systems work together,” Michel said.

One of the projects on which Michel has made progress is a digital wallet, which will bring Belgians’ IDs and driver’s licenses to their smartphones next year.

It’s a reality check for tech advocates — who are projecting their wish lists onto digital ministers and would like them to be more than governments’ IT help desks.

Vincent Manancourt and Laura Kayali contributed reporting.

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