#DigiGovSpotlight Punching above its weight: The Netherlands’ digital government leads on transparency, trust

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

Mark Vermeer, Director of Digital Government at the Netherlands’ Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK) shares with GovInsider how the European country places trust and transparency at the forefront of digital government.

This story is part of GovInsider's new Digital Government initiative, which aims to feature stories from digital government agencies around the world. Click here to view our interactive map and reach out to editorial@govinsider.asia if you wish to contribute a piece.

Subscribe to the GovInsider Bulletin for the latest public sector and innovation updates.


The Netherlands is taming big tech, declared The New York Times in 2023. When Google refused to reduce privacy risks within its education apps in 2021, the Dutch Government threatened to ban the use of Google products in schools.


In response, Google rolled out new privacy measures to comply with European privacy requirements – measures that are now being rolled out worldwide.

“You’re never too small to make an impact,” says Mark Vermeer, Director of Digital Government at the Netherlands. Despite the country’s small size, it performs “exhaustive” technical and legal assessments of big tech products, says The New York Times.


“When it comes to traditional e-government, the Dutch are doing pretty well. But the change we’re making is impacting digital society as well,” says Vermeer. Vermeer, who was previously Chief Information Officer of Dutch city Rotterdam, and now oversees the strategic direction of the Dutch digital government strategy.

GPT-NL: The Netherland’s own open-source language model


In 2023, the Dutch Government announced a partnership with educational institutions to build its own open-source language model, GPT-NL, for the Dutch language, values, and culture.


“We are unwilling to leave the future socioeconomic security of the Netherlands exclusively in the hands of major tech companies,” said Minister for Digitalisation Alexandra van Huffelen, in a press release in January on the Government’s vision for generative AI.


The model will be developed by non-profit Dutch research organisations with government funding. Once completed, researchers and government officials can use it for a variety of domains like health and service delivery, according to a press release.


“We hope this will be an important step towards transparent, fair, and testable use of AI. As an open model, it will allow anyone to see how the underlying software works and how the AI arrives at certain conclusions.


“We will also be open in the sense that partners who want to contribute data and knowledge, or who want to develop applications, are welcome,” says Vermeer.


Beyond the model, the Dutch Government will be mapping out the impact of AI on the future of work, educating people on securing their data against AI, and implementing responsible generative AI applications within certain government services. 


AI Singapore and Amazon Web Services are building a regional LLM model catering to ASEAN languages and values, GovInsider reported previously.


Subscribe to the GovInsider Bulletin for the latest public sector and innovation updates.

Guided by trust & transparency


“What digital world do we want to live in? How do we ensure that everyone can trust the digital world? How do we ensure that everyone can participate in a digital world?” 


These are the three questions guiding the country’s digitalisation endeavours, Vermeer explains – treating digitalisation as a policy matter, like poverty or climate change, rather than just as operations.


The country adopts a value-driven and people-oriented approach, to ensure tech works for society. That is, “everyone must be able to participate, have confidence in digitalisation, and have control over their digital lives.” These goals were highlighted in the country’s Values-Driven Digitalisation Work Agenda.


For instance, residents in the Netherlands have full view over the data agencies use through their Personal Records Database, he says. 


The country has also recently launched a new Child Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) to help businesses ensure that children’s rights are safeguarded when using digital products.

Shaping EU digital identity legislation


The Netherlands has played a key role in shaping the European Union’s recent digital identity legislation, he shares, in the aspect of personal data protection.


In March 2024, the EU adopted a new framework for secure and voluntary digital wallets for all Europeans, which will enable all residents to access online services with a digital identity, while remaining in control of their personal data.


Every citizen should be in “the driving seat” of their digital lives, with the ability to influence whether their data is shared or not, says Vermeer.


For instance, if a website needs to verify someone is over 18, the eID wallet enables citizens to do so in an authorised way without having to disclose their exact birthdate – only whether they’re above 18 or not.


“Data minimisation is an important part of the technology,” Vermeer says. The team aims to roll out the Netherlands’ digital identity solution, DigID, and other digital government services to the Netherlands’ territories in the Caribbean, where access to these services are still fragmented.


The country also implements European legislation like the Digital Services Act, which aims to improve the trustworthiness of the digital environment and help citizens more easily report harmful online material, he adds.

Moving towards an “open, unless” policy


As part of their focus on transparency, the country is a proponent of open-source technology, Vermeer says. 


He highlights that open source helps the Government remain transparent and helps citizens build trust in the working of government systems. He notes that open source has a good reputation for being secure, due to the community’s ability to review and strengthen code.


The country’s Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations actively promotes the use of open source software within government and has established an Open Source Programme Office. It is currently considering the viability of adopting an “open, unless” policy, which will mandate agencies share information and source code with citizens.

The European digital identity wallet is open source, and its source code was published on GitHub in February 2024.