An overview of the Four Plans’ digital tag and proposals for a better implementation

The RRP funds (grants and loans) allocated to the digital transition by the Prometheus Member States (Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Italy) amount to €81 bn, out of a total of €131.5 bn for all Member States. Therefore, the four Southern European countries can rely on most of the available resources (61.6%) to close the digital divide with the most advanced Member States and improve the life and productivity of their citizens. This is an unprecedented, as well as unique, opportunity that cannot be missed.

Comparing the four plans is relatively difficult. Not only do the RRPs present different priorities and aim to achieve different objectives (depending also on the starting levels), the structures and methodologies can also be seen to be quite dissimilar. In looking at the different national plans, it emerges that the organisation and the availability of information regarding figures, definitions, fields of intervention and existence of sub-categories greatly vary across different countries, also making it difficult to compare this kind of information.

For example, connectivity is not included in the Portuguese plan (due to a more advanced roll-out of broadband networks than in Italy and Greece, where a lot more resources are devoted to fixed broadband and 5G), while artificial intelligence is dispersed across different components in the Italian and Greek RRPs, and in Spain it relies on a specific lever policy, organically implementing a National Strategy.  At the same time, cybersecurity is mainly associated to a National Plan on Digital Skills in Spain, while in Italy, where a cybersecurity agency did not exist until very recently and is still being set up, relevant policy measures are mostly linked to the consolidation of public governance in the field.

Digital skills and the digital transformation of the public administration are probably the areas showing the largest convergences among the four RRPS.

In the former, vocational and life-long training and public employee reskilling and upskilling are common features, while data collection and exchange and cloud migration are an important entry for the latter.

In order to achieve the final outcomes consistent with the envisaged ambitions, several challenges and potential flaws need to be addressed.

First, generally speaking, the RRPs devote more resources and mechanisms to investments and fewer to reforms. However, digital transformation can be successful only if it radically changes processes and organisations. All levers, programmes and components touching on the digital transition should prioritise reforms over investments or, at least, find a better balance between both.

A smooth vertical coordination between central and local administrations, through transparency, accountability and good governance principles, is indispensable. More in general, a decentralised implementation could be positive insofar as measures, once implemented, may greatly and directly impact different regions. However, in the digital realm, this means ensuring data interoperability and proper data architecture, for instance.

Yet, the horizontal coordination with other EU funds, stated in Article 28 of the RRF Regulation (2021/241), is also needed though not easily achievable without specific tools and adjusted governance.

Moreover, the inadequacy of digital skills, both basic and specialised, could represent an important bottleneck in achieving the RRPs goals. This is a common problem that needs to be addressed, but it appears to be more urgent for SMEs and the public administrations in charge of the plan execution. Training facilities and courses should be rapidly scaled up, also thanks to public-private partnerships.

Finally, the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) have not been defined in all cases as concrete metrics for ensuring, regardless of the justifying documents, the effective achievement of the underlying policy objectives identified in the RRPs. Nor is there any information on trade-offs between the different possible initiatives. This jeopardises the optimality of initiatives from a planning and performance perspective, including the evaluation of being the best way to spend the budget (opportunity cost perspective). Therefore, the RRPs should provide mechanisms for ex post impact assessment. A “return on investment” metric would allow for estimating why and how each specific investment is to achieve the target at hand and could also be used to justify the choice of the alternative actions. We also propose that responsible entities clearly identify investments and outcomes as being part of the RRP, standardising as much as possible the presentation of the information that is publicly available at different entities.

In speaking of standardisation, the European Commission should work with Member States on a uniform approach to present data, information, and goals, allowing for a better monitoring of each plan.

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