The bureacratic, freeloading image of the European Union?s various institutions has in the past left cynical observers seeing only costs rather than benefits.
But in the technology arena the EU is trying hard to confound this image and, like most commercial IT directors, is working hard to advance its use of IT, even while cutting costs.
The three main European Union institutions: the European Commission; the European Parliament; and the Council of Ministers, are increasingly synchronising their technology choices for hardware, software and maintenance support.
There has been considerable pressure at management level for EU institutions to enter into joint tendering, meaning technology purchasing would be synchronised and potentially cutting costs through greater economies of scale.
But each institution has different IT needs and the trend towards joint tendering and purchasing has received a mixed reaction from suppliers, who still have to deal with three different bodies.
?The Commission often asks for too much for too little, probably to have the most PCs in their offices, and certainly the length of time for tenders is much longer than the Council or the Parliament,? said Regis Vermeire, marketing and product manager for Manudax, distributor of Nokia products.
Other suppliers suspect the Commission has a policy that all contracts should not be awarded to a single supplier and that it is more interested in promoting suppliers based in the EU. But being choosy can also mean a longer wait for decisions.
?With joint tenders, it will take even more time to have a final answer and decision. This could provide even more tricky situations for us,? said Manudax's Vermeire, ?Having separate budgets to offer separate contracts is better as it provides more competition and we get more tenders.?
However, in practice the three institutions are so large that it is very difficult to synchronise their technologies, said a Parliament spokesperson. The Parliament has enough problems setting up its own tenders, never mind handling joint ones, he noted.
?But it's fine for small institutions, such as the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors, to piggy-back on other institutions, because tendering can be a lengthy and expensive process,? he added.
Synchronising technologies will provide benefits such as an opportunity to use ready made applications previously developed by another institutions. But in chasing value for money, the EU institutions may find implementing joint tendering more costly for both institutions and suppliers than they bargained for.
On specific technologies, the Commission said it believes 1999 will be the hardware year for suppliers and 2000 the software year. With a new Parliament building opening in Strasbourg, one of the big tenders in 1999 is certain to be in telecommunications, with a new network due to be installed.
The Commission will be issuing a tender for a telephony system in the next three to four months. With the liberalisation of the telecomms sector in January 1998, Belgium's incumbent telephone operator Belgacom can no longer enjoy its former monopoly of the market for services.
Teleworking, videoconferencing and expansion of the Intranet to become an Extranet are the main technology focuses in the future. Windows NT is becoming the ubiquitous desktop operating system, while tenders will go out soon for new servers and printers. Technology choices are dictated by mainstream trends, with little investment in technology from startups.
?Our goal is to keep a coherence in architecture through the common selection of products for our PCs, networks and servers. We are now working on the problem of improving the network, merging voice, data and image transmission between our different buildings,? said a Commission informatics directorate official.
The EU will not be able to take the route favoured by many commercial organisations however - there are no plans to outsource the computer centre at Luxembourg as the Commission says the information stored there is too sensitive.
But like all other large organisations the Commission faces one unavoidable priority next year: how to cope with the Year 2000. It says the Millennium bug is a worry and has allocated a budget of around 96 million ecu (#67 million) for IT equipment compliance work and 10 million ecu (#7 million) to work on telephony systems.
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