Toespraak van staatssecretaris Knops bij de Ber Chain nieuwjaarsreceptie

Toespraak van staatssecretaris Knops (BZK) bij de nieuwjaarsreceptie van Ber Chain in Berlijn. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Het gesproken woord geldt.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening. Awesome to be here in the Blockchain capital of the world.

Digitalization is changing our world. Is there still someone who can imagine life without a smartphone? It’s only 10 years ago since we started using this device.

No decision is a decision too.

I grew up in the neighborhood of Venlo, a town near the German border, 50 kilometres from Duisburg. I left home at 18. I was interested in going to university, but initially the armed forces and the promise of action was a bigger draw. I wanted to contribute to a better world.

After officer training, I was put in command of a unit that protected our airspace with missiles against other missiles and aircraft. That sometimes meant making life-or-death decisions. And I learnt that making no decision is actually a decision too.

Our whole life revolves around decisions. And this is true for the government too. Should we intervene, or not? Should we make a new law, or not?
When I became State Secretary at the end of 2017, my outlook on life had been shaped by my time in the armed forces. I was the first member of government to be specifically tasked with coordinating ‘digital government’. I was no expert then, and I’m still no expert now, but I did know how I wanted to tackle this mission.

There is no doubt in my mind: when it comes to digital developments, a government cannot afford to simply wait and see. I want to be in the thick of things. Where the innovation is happening. That means leading the way, staying up to date on relevant developments.

We want to work together with experts. We want to investigate the promise of technologies like blockchain.

So my staff and I took part in the world’s biggest blockchain hackathon in Groningen last year, along with 700 programmers. After the event, programmers hugged our civil servants and thanked them for their help.

Now that kind of public-private partnership is right up my street. Technical experts alone are not enough. And neither are ‘old world’ experts.
The strength lies in the partnership and the will to work together on new technologies. Being a part of things, getting involved, with innovative companies and smart scientists.

So to change our thinking, I’ve brought together a group of civil servants who go in search of knowledge outside the ministry. Who think and act differently. They connect with brilliant specialist programmers you wouldn’t normally encounter at the ministry. I encourage them to go off track. I myself talk to companies and visit them and talk to people.

For instance, at my ministry’s request Delft University of Technology is running a trial with blockchain authentication. So that you’ll be able to identify yourself without providing all kinds of personal data. In fact: a digital stamp on your phone.

In addition to your passport and driver’s license, a phone application that enables you to prove your identity quickly and securely and also offers even more privacy options could soon be possible.

In a Dutch paper (Eindhovens Dagblad) Johan Pouwelse, project manager at the university, explained the benefit of deciding yourself which  information you want to share of your digital ID. Let’s say you want to rent a boat, he explained. You have to give a copy of your passport. That carries risks. In your digital ID you can cover some of your data, while the signature of the government is still present. So your privacy increases with a digital ID, while it is just as safe as a passport or driver’s license.

Our ministry would never have been able to develop that by itself. So we’re working together with the university, the company that makes Dutch passports, and a law firm, in the Dutch Blockchain Coalition.

Hand-picked experts

To reap rewards like these we need to change the way we think as a government. Einstein once said: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, I can tell you: I am, nor do I want to be called insane.

In my free time, I enjoy hiking in the mountains. I love going on long walks and taking in the magnificent views. But for the best experiences you often need to go off the beaten track. The same is true in providing new digital services.

This makes us a government that actively keeps up with recent developments. Effective, reliable and accessible. To enhance this, we focus strongly on improving our digital services to citizens and companies.

When our government started October 2017, for the first time in history a member of the government was appointed for coordinating all efforts concerning our digital services.

The Dutch Digitalisation Strategy is a Cabinet-wide strategy that considers every aspect of digitalisation.

There is a separate agenda to deal with cyber security issues - namely, the Dutch Cyber Security Agenda. Under the supervision of the minister of Justice.

The Digital Government Agenda, that I presented last summer, is aimed at government and interaction with citizens and entrepreneurs.This Digital Government Agenda is an agenda drawn up together by all levels of government and it establishes links with key public and private partners. It’s an open document, which can change over the course of the coming years, depending on digital developments and innovations by our partners.

So, what do we do?

First, stimulating innovation: we make funding available to companies, government agencies and scientific institutions that use new technologies to achieve broad public goals. We take part in hackathons. And we connect with startups for a certain period of time so they can help us improve government services.

Second, we do research on artificial intelligence in relation to fundamental rights and ethics. We must innovate without losing sight of public values like privacy and security. We are investigating how to ensure adequate supervision of the integrity of data in algorithms. This is an intrinsic element of good public administration and of reinforcing the confidence of citizens and entrepreneurs in government. In essence, the real question is: What sort of society do we want to live in? What consequences will these developments have for the organisation of government?

Third, we want to help people who have difficulty using technology, or who can’t use it at all. No matter how much we innovate as a government, we must leave no one behind. Not a single citizen. You do not want to battle with incomprehensible systems, websites and bureaucratic language. New technology should also give people more autonomy. It shouldn’t make them feel like they’re losing control. And I believe that’s one of the greatest benefits of blockchain applications: People can gain more control over their own data, and become less dependent on centralised institutions, and their many rules and regulations. Blockchain technology also promises us more transparency in decision-making. This fosters public trust in government. And in these times, that trust is under pressure. 

Fourth, we want to make our services more personal. And offer more services as one package. You shouldn’t have to put up with all these different government agencies sending you separate messages. The government is there to serve the people. Not the other way round.

How do our efforts measure up internationally?

Fortunately, the Netherlands is on the right track in terms of digitalisation. As well as Germany. The European eGovernment Benchmark 2018 should give our countries both confidence for the road that lies ahead. Better yet: We should reap the rewards of our performance.

  •  In terms of user centricity - how fast and easy is public information usable - the Netherlands ranks 6th in Europe. And within that area, we come 5th for cross-border services. Germany ranks respectively 14 and 21.
  • The Netherlands is 9th for transparent public institutions and services. Germany number 17.
  • For digital building blocks ‒ the services that citizens and companies can use in their dealings with the government, the key enablers ‒ we come 9th. Germany ranks 17th.
  • And for maturity in terms of Open Data we are 10th in Europe. And Germany number 17.

If you look at our overall eGovernment performance Germany is placed number 15, the Netherlands at number 8

International cooperation

So the Dutch government wants to cooperate with countries who are as ambitious as we are. A European coalition of the willing. To exchange ideas on digital technology. But also to guide these developments from a political point of view. I’m going to discuss this with my counterparts in several other countries. Germany is a very important partner. Today secretary of state Klaus Vitt and I agreed upon close cooperation.

This evening, I hope I can interest German startups in coming to the Odyssee Hackathon in Groningen, from the 11th to the 15th of April.

But before that, Silvan Jongerius ‒ one of the founders of BerChain ‒ will speak at an event on the 8th of February, when our ministry will present its two assignments for the hackathon. Assignments based on social issues relating to digital identity and open data. We’ll then discuss these challenges with several international experts.

The first challenge is about creating a potentially Dutch government-backed next-generation digital identity for adoption throughout Europe, with the citizen, not the government, as the starting point. The Dutch Ministry of the Interior challenges you to come up with a truly new approach to reliably, easily establishing a digital identity. It must potentially function on all devices commonly owned by the general public. 

The second challenge is about a privacy breach detector. One of the objections to publishing open data is the risk of releasing datasets which accidentally expose privacy-related information. Checking this data with the privacy breach detector can prove that it is safe to release the specific open data with regards to privacy.

I hope that many startups will help seek solutions at the hackathon in April. It might be quite a way from Berlin, but sometimes you have to venture off the beaten path to see the best views and gain the best insights.

Step by step. Not waiting on perfection but by taking logical steps. We call this permanent β. That’s what I experience here in Germany as well. I look forward to further cooperation.

And that’s why I was very pleased to come here. I wish you all a pleasant evening.

Thank you.