Opinion

Tech in the House of Representatives: the first 100 days of the Digital Affairs Committee

13-08-2021

A data leak at the Municipal Health Service (GGD), ‘hacking’ into a secret meeting of the Council of Foreign Affairs by tech journalist Daniël Verlaan and MPs who do not know what the acronym ‘GAFA’ stands for: government and tech do not always go hand in hand. In February of this year, presenter Arjen Lubach coined the term ‘digibetocracy’ and made an appeal to politicians: pay more attention to IT knowledge among politicians. In the same month, the Lower House officially decided to set up a Permanent Parliamentary Committee on Digital Affairs (Vaste Kamercommissie Digitale Zaken (DiZa)). Last Saturday, 31 July, 100 days passed since the kick-off meeting of this committee. What has happened so far? Colleagues Tessel Schouwink and Jonathan Provoost look back.

Although the importance of digitisation has been known for years, it was only last year that real action was taken. In February, an amendment by CDA MP Van der Molen was adopted, after which a permanent Lower House committee for Digital Affairs was established. The basic idea was to allow the House to gain more knowledge in the area of digitisation and to be able to monitor potentially impactful developments in this area. In addition, more and more Dutch and European legislation has a digital component. DiZa’s task is to give this component the much-needed attention.

Incorporating and framing

It was not until early June that the official terms of reference of the committee were set: the new committee would like to take the lead in dealing with “digitisation issues that transcend the committee” and will focus, among other things, on putting digitisation trends on the agenda, dealing with digital legislation and acting as a point of contact for both the government and social groups, the business community and science in the area of tech.

This range of tasks still needs to be defined: during the procedural meeting, only 14 agenda items were discussed on average – in stark contrast to the 47 agenda items discussed by the Interior Affairs Committee (BiZa), over 50 by the Economic Affairs and Climate (EZK) and Education, Culture and Science (OCW) committees and over 60 by the Justice and Security Committee (J&V). A comparison with these already established committees provides insight into DiZa’s start-up process. The number of files to be processed is not yet close to that. This is mainly because decisions are constantly being made on which files will be taken over from other committees. In the first procedural meeting, for example, it was decided that a number of subjects from the EZK committee would be moved to DiZa. The most notable of these are the European Digital Service Act and the Digital Market Acts, and the European approach to Artificial Intelligence.

The committee officially has 34 members, but as with other committees, the number of actually active members is lower. In the past 100 days, the committee met five times for a procedural meeting and the average number of committee members present was about six. This is not much less than the procedure meetings of the BiZa (six), J&V (six), OCW (more than seven) and EZK (more than eight) Committees.

Building knowledge

Yet the low attendance is striking when the call for more digital knowledge in the Chamber is considered. The central government report ‘Update Required’, published in 2020, already concluded that many MPs label the subject of ‘digitisation’ as ‘terribly technical’ and ‘complicated’. Of the 34 committee members, only one has a clear background in digitisation: Queeny Rajkowski (Conservative Liberals – VVD) was a city councillor in Utrecht for four years, with digitisation in her portfolio. It is worth noting that people with a background in exact sciences are in the minority in the Chamber at all.

An alternative to a relevant background is that ‘there is enough support for MPs’, according to former SP MP Arda Gerkens. Each member of parliament has a policy officer, who provides substantive support for parliamentary work and does a lot of preparatory work. In addition, the parliamentary organisation itself is working on expanding the number of independent committee advisers. For instance, there is currently a vacancy for an EU advisor for the DiZa. The question remains whether this is sufficient: can a member of parliament without a substantive digital background rely fully on advisers and policy staff?

The ‘Update Required’ report therefore recommends using the government, civil society groups, the business community and scientific institutions as sources of information. The report writes:

“In recent years, the House of Representatives has been offered more and more agendas and monitors from several ministries, advisory councils and knowledge institutes. Yet this does not increase the sense of control. What’s more, the integral consideration of interests is sometimes made more difficult by the volume of information that comes to the House of Representatives and the sometimes technical subject matter.”

Cooperation in this area is still in its infancy, according to the report. Members of parliament do not always receive the right amount of information, and organisations lack a ‘permanent’ point of contact in politics. A lot of relevant knowledge about digitisation is lost or not noticed. DiZa has already received a large number of invitations for introductory talks from companies, institutes and knowledge institutions, such as the Personal Data Authority and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. They have therefore immediately picked up the gauntlet.

Has the call been answered?

The call from society for more knowledge about digitisation among politicians does not seem to have been fully answered in the first 100 days. With DiZa, the House of Representatives has started a good attempt to get a better grip on the digitising world, but where the developments in the field of tech seem to be growing ever faster, there is little time to get going. MPs must be able to find the committee even better given attendance, although this can be explained by a number of things: the large number of small groups (and therefore fewer people), the caretaker state of the cabinet and the relatively short time from the kick-off meeting to the summer recess.

In September, the role of DiZa becomes more clear, and therefore more interesting. First of all, other committees have been thinking about the dossiers they want to hand over, and the outcome of this will be discussed during the procedural meeting of 15 September. In addition, around Budget Day (Prinsjesdag) it will become clear which budgets the committee is allowed to discuss. Will DiZa be able to play a significant role immediately during the first budget discussions after its establishment?

This piece was written by Tessel Schouwink (trainee) and Jonathan Provoost (consultant).

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

"The balancing of interests is made more difficult by the volume of information coming to the House of Representatives and the technical subject matter."

Jonathan Provoost

Consultant

+31 (0)70 3046 499

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