How APIs Will Address the Challenges of Holland's Biggest IT Project Ever

With almost 17 million people living on barely 41.543 square kilometers, The Netherlands are one of the most crowded countries in the world. Although it is a traditional monarchy (my passport tells me I'm an inhabitant of The Royal Kingdom of The Netherlands), the Dutch are known to be very open minded, modern and straight forward. With over 94% of its citizens connected to the internet, The Netherlands also have one of the highest rates of Internet users in Europe. Yet there is one organization which doesn't share a lot of these typical Dutch characteristics; the government.

Like most governments, the Dutch government is a very large, rigid and bureaucratic organization with lots of civil servants, policymakers, management layers, public authorities, administrative areas, etcetera. The country is part of the European Union and is divided into 12 provinces, 390 municipalities and 24 so called water districts, governed by water boards. Each of them has its own employees, IT suppliers, software, standards and legislations which should somehow align with both the national government and the European Union.

Attempts at using IT to bring order to the chaos have failed so far, in most of the cases because complex tenders led to highly cost-ineffective multi-year projects performed by large multinationals resulting in a lack of innovation and a very high delivery time in a rapidly evolving market. Where modern startups went lean and agile to develop and validate concepts and small parts of systems, the government was bound to established habits, preferred suppliers and traditional waterfall models where dozens of architects had to write more requirements and specifications than the whole rain forest could possibly ever generate paper for, before a single piece of "Hello world" code was written. But things are about to change now that a new law has been approved which forces the government to provide better and easier service to citizens and entrepeneurs: The Environmental Act.

Starting a Brewery

Imagine you'd like to start a beer brewery in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, Gelderland province. The Nijmegen municipality states that a brewery is categorized as Level 4 in the Environment Index (air pollution, noise disturbance, etcetera). To make a comparison: the highest level is Level 5 which includes a nuclear power plant, Level 3 includes a medicine factory. While this is a political matter (in other municipalities a brewery may be categorized differently, depending on the elected local council), it appears impossible for the city hall to provide a list with available Level 4 locations. In your search for a qualifying location you should also consider that the zoning must allow commercial production of foodstuff. This makes a combination of both requirements necessary, but because zoning is governed by another department which isn't able to export a list with qualifying locations, you should just Trial & Error requests for different locations.

Once you find a location, you must ask the municipality for a permit to actually start producing something on that location. In order to get that permit you must fill out a form about the expected noise level and expected traffic, as well as how many residential buildings surround the area. Fortunately you don't have to count the buildings by hand, you can just look it up in the National Building Registry. Because the beer you are going to brew contains alcohol, the National Customs Agency needs to give you another permit to produce alcohol containing drinks so they can collect the excise. To get this permit you have to fill out a form about the expected volume, alcohol percentage, but also about local legislations. In the mean time you'll have to fill out forms from the Dutch Food and Drug Administration, the Tax Authorities and other instances. Besides the bureaucratic process which could be made a lot easier if these organizations communicate together, all parties ask for the same basic company information which could be copied from the Chamber of Commerce. And if you think you are finally finished when you have all your permits (on paper, by mail...), you could be really unlucky if it appears that some protected bird species chose to settle near your new brewery.

The Environmental Act

The situation as described above is a summary of what really happened when I and some friends started our own brewery and it's only one of many examples where a huge amount of (human) resources, time and money are being wasted due to complex legislation leading to ineffective collaboration between the different involved government organizations. Fortunately there is a solution for this, and it's called the Environmental Act.

Hayke Veldman, member of the Dutch parliament and spokesman for the Environmental Act (on behalf of Holland's People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, aka the VVD) said: “The Dutch Environmental Act is one of the largest legislative acts since the establishment of The Netherlands in 1815 and is most-likely the largest government IT challenge in its history. Basically it means that 26 acts (consisting of 4,700 articles) are integrated into one act (with 349 articles), making it easier for everyone to see what is allowed at a certain location.”

Accepted by the Dutch parliament in the summer of 2015, the first phase needs to be realized in 2018. While that's still two years from now, speaking in government terms it's a race against the clock. Although a large amount of money has been reserved for this immense project, it is still a challenge to find enough qualified people and organizations to realize it. Therefore the developer community needs to get involved as well. The only way to make any progress in this small amount of time is to say goodbye to the traditional waterfall methodology and start all over again, acting open, agile and lean: we need to see the Government as a Startup, where the government provides developer-friendly access to high quality linked data through semantic APIs, data platforms and other channels that can fuel the Digital Transformation of The Netherlands by connecting government data and services to corporate data and services.

Government organizations start to develop proofs of concepts, research tenders and innovation roadmaps. Together with the Open Data revolution and former E.U. Commissioner of the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes' attempt to boost the Dutch digital economy by creating a so called Startup Delta in The Netherlands, the Dutch Environmental Act forces the government to accelerate the development of a mature digital society.  The growing demand for people working in the Dutch IT sector raises academic matters and even resulted in the establishment of a new Big Data Graduate School; a partnership between Tilburg University and Eindhoven University. It seems like the Environmental Act, primarily meant to stimulate entrepeneurship in The Netherlands and to make life easier for its inhabitants, arrived at the right time in the right place and unleashed a new digital revolution. The country once known for their expertise with water has now started to catch up in the field of IT, by all means.

Be sure to read the next Government article: GovTrack to Shutdown API and Pass the Legislative Data Torch