Luxembourg falling behind in digital public services
Luxembourg has made some long-awaited steps in improving online access to government services, but critics say the country could have done much better, pointing at its unimpressive ranking compared to its European peers.
Alleviating the administrative burden for everyone who has ever visited a doctor, the country said last week that people will no longer have to send their medical bills by post to be reimbursed as of 2023.
That comes after remote video appointments between patients and doctors became possible at the start of the pandemic and the introduction of online registration for electoral polls and applications to vote in 2019.
But the country is far behind other EU states, such as Estonia which digitised most of its public health system a decade ago.
“We could be developing our digitalisation much quicker," said Pirate Party parliamentarian Sven Clement. “We should have been able to do that [doctor’s appointments online] long before.”
Only 58% of internet users in the Grand Duchy actively engage with e-government services, way below the EU average of 67%, according to a European Commission report which ranks countries in the bloc.
The so-called Digital Economy and Society Index – DESI - praises Luxembourg for its efforts in things such as broadband services. But the country is sitting just halfway up the leader board - at number 14 - for how digital its public services are, compared to the rest of Europe.
The Grand Duchy is much smaller than its European neighbours, France and Germany, and thus has fewer resources. But its economy is one of the strongest in Europe: in 2020 Luxembourg had the highest GDP per capita out of all other 27 EU member states, according to the European Commission, with each resident contributing on average €81,290 in value to the economy.
“Luxembourg is somewhere close to the middle in nearly every category - not as good as one might have expected, given how much Luxembourg has going for it overall,” said J Scott Marcus, a senior fellow specialising in digital research at Brussels based think-thank, Bruegel. “You are one of the smallest [countries in Europe] but you stand well [economically].”
Other small countries, such as Estonia, whose population sits at around 1.3 million have had fully digitised public services for years. The Baltic nation put nearly all of its government services online after a hack of government databases in 2007 and more than 95% of data generated from hospitals and doctors in the country can now be found online, for example.
Luxembourg patients will have to wait until another two years to be able to have their medical bills reimbursed digitally, a policy which was only developed after a petition demanding patient payments to doctors to be scrapped gained an overwhelming number of signatures last year.
“Small countries have done well [digitally], and you have to say, ‘why not you [Luxembourg]?’”, said Marcus.
The Commission report said that Luxembourg is “particularly good” at providing digital services for businesses who are gradually able to fill in more forms online than previously. But not everyone agrees.
Monika Tasi set up a small personal training company – Intratrainer - in Bertrange earlier this year. While Tasi also works as a financial auditor, she still found the process of setting up a business difficult to navigate, with a lot of forms to fill in, many located in different places.
“If I was not a financial auditor it would be much more complicated [to set up a company],” said Tasi.
Tasi found instructions of how to set up her business easily enough on Luxembourg’s online service website MyGuichet.lu.
But she then had to ring to get a VAT number, register with the social security centre - the CCSS - to be able to employ other people, and advertise each job on the website of employment agency ADEM. “It’s not that easy and it’s not that evident [how to set up a business],” she said.
Another person, who wished to stay anonymous, described the process of setting up a business an “absolute horror”. When opening a bank account, he had to come to an office in Kirchberg because a signature was lacking on a form. It was then scanned and sent to an office in Metz in France, taking another two days before he could access his bank account.
Luxembourg should continue to bolster its efforts to become more digital to keep up with other European countries, Bruegel's Marcus said: “It will be part of its competitive advantage compared to other member states.”