Like many organisations, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) was hit hard by the corona crisis. Blessing in disguise: the transition to flexible, agile and multidisciplinary IT platforms had been set in motion shortly before that. “As a result, we were able to react quickly and financially support struggling businesses,” says Johan Maas, acting Managing Director of RVO. In this article, Johan Maas and Jan van Deenen, Managing Director of Blueriq, share their vision about IT-related developments before, during and after the corona crisis.
The Netherlands Enterprise Agency works to promote corporate sustainability in the Netherlands. It does this not just by providing businesses with knowledge and expertise but also by implementing subsidy, credit and guarantee schemes for SMEs and agricultural businesses, amongst others. “We’re a process-driven organisation,” says Johan Maas, “a process factory, I sometimes call it jokingly. At RVO, they feel a strong need to support our processes even better with stable, future-proof IT. Up to two years ago, we implemented subsidy schemes with a mix of modern and obsolete IT systems. That was when the transition to a new IT landscape began. To realise that transition, we put together a team of employees from RVO, Blueriq and Deloitte Consultancy, supported by our IT supplier DICTU. The business itself was put ‘in the lead’. Before the corona crisis this ‘square’, as we call it, had produced a flexible and agile UPNL platform for implementing subsidy schemes. We couldn’t have imagined then how badly we’d need this.”
When the corona crisis broke out in earnest in March 2020, it soon became clear that it would have enormous economic consequences. The politicians introduced the economic contingency arrangements. It was the job of the implementing agencies, including RVO, to implement them in close consultation with the various Ministries. You can imagine how hectic those first few months were. A huge amount of work had to be done under strict time constraints. Among other things, the TOGS scheme – popularly called the ‘4,000 euro scheme’ – and the TVL scheme (fixed charges allowance) had to be set up. Maas: “I’m hugely impressed with the way our people, the people from DICTU, Deloitte and Blueriq tackled this together. They showed enormous enthusiasm, decisiveness and had a great solution-oriented attitude. Everything had to be done really quickly. And that's far from easy if you all suddenly have to work from home. Fortunately, it was possible to scale up quickly. In just a few weeks, the first corona schemes were up and running and businesses could apply for compensation. We normally spend several months making the technical preparations for a scheme of this size and complexity."
Jan van Deenen also thinks that the UPNL team put in a great performance. “Of course we had the advantage that everyone already knew each other and that the four parties already had a good working relationship. In times of crisis, something like this can really take off. I noticed how passionate our Blueriq people had become; there was a collective sense of responsibility to get things done. Everybody was thinking: ‘We have the knowledge and the skills in-house; society needs us.’ I also noticed this enthusiasm in the other organisations. We worked shoulder to shoulder to get everything done as quickly as possible. It was uplifting to see that everyone wanted to do their bit for society.”
Unfortunately, Van Deenen himself had to watch from the sidelines at the start. He became infected with the corona virus, as did most of his family. “It’s been a strange time for us. Blueriq was bursting at the seams. And it wasn’t just RVO that suddenly had to scale up. All our other customers had to do the same. Everyone was working day and night. After all, this was the moment when Blueriq could make a difference! It was – and still is – a really interesting time for the company. At the same time, the human side of the crisis was immediately clear to me. Because of my own situation, I saw the huge impact that corona can have on families, households and communities.”
Johan Maas sees that the crisis has positive and negative sides. On the one hand so much human and economic suffering, but on the other hand a wide range of positive initiatives and opportunities that were not there before. “These are small rays of hope in this serious crisis. For example, I saw great solidarity among entrepreneurs – the willingness to be there for each other. But there were also entrepreneurs who offered their help to us after their own businesses had to shut down. Among other things, they worked in our customer contact centre. That really helped. Human contact with and between entrepreneurs is really important right now."
Connection between the Ministry and the implementation agencies
The working method between the Ministry and the implementation agencies also changed. Maas: “Before the crisis, it was more of a one-way street. For example, a client from a Ministry would come to us with a fully worked out subsidy scheme and ask us to implement it. Then they would gradually add more specific requirements. That’s a little overstated, of course, because in many cases we worked together very well. But sometimes assignments were formulated without closely involving the implementation agencies. This then meant it was very difficult for our IT organisation to make that implementation possible.”
“But with this crisis, it works the other way around. Now the Ministry comes to us with the open question ‘What are the possible options?’ and we examine the options together. In other words, there’s more focus on the implementation at an earlier stage so that projects can be implemented much faster and at the same time more carefully and everything can be discussed in advance. This makes the implementation much less complex. The crisis has brought policy and implementation closer together. I think this will also leave its mark after the crisis. There will be a new and better balance between policy and implementation.”
Jan van Deenen believes that working together has been given a boost in many areas. “There’s more trust. Trust in each other, but also trust in the ability to solve things. There’s also more integration between companies and organisations. We’ve now learned what we can do for each other, how we can use each other's qualities. That’s a really positive development. And it’s worth keeping."
“We need to start thinking about how we can standardise data and enable the IT systems of implementing agencies to work together safely and securely.”
Interesting reflections on the post-corona era, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, we are still in the middle of the crisis. Johan Maas: “I think the situation is going to get even more hectic. RVO is still busy with all kinds of new schemes and with the development and expansion of the existing schemes. Our platform fortunately makes it possible to easily adjust different variables, such as the maximum allowance in a scheme or the percentage difference in turnover that will be compensated. We’re basing the new schemes on the earlier schemes. That’s why we’re happy to see that there were so few errors in the Blueriq software during that first phase.”
Van Deenen explains: “When you work under that type of time constraint, mistakes are unavoidable. Blueriq software is specifically designed so that you can fix errors quickly and at any time. Our models are continuously adaptable and they ensure that you don’t have to start from scratch every time. We don't do disposable software.”
Now is also the time when the Ministries in question will start evaluating the initial emergency measures. In other words, after the design phase and the implementation phase it is now time for the accountability phase.
Johan Maas: “That’s only logical. A huge amount of money has been injected into the economy in a targeted way in a short time. So you want to know whether it was all spent properly. Despite the limited time that we had, we built in risk models and fine-tuned them along the way. It must be possible to improve the accountability of those risk models. Every step in our system is logged. An audit trail specifies who took which decision on the basis of which data and which facts. That could be important for accountability in the future.”
Jan van Deenen: “You can now see this development throughout the chain: the need to be able to record the reality of that moment – among other things, by means of an audit trail. Blueriq is very well-suited to this and is also ideally equipped for the job.”
Let us now briefly look into the future and imagine a world that is corona-free. What changes can we expect in RVO? Johan Maas: “When the crisis is over and everything settles down, new gradations will come about. We’re now working with scaled-up teams. Knowledge is expensive. I can imagine that we’ll acquire that knowledge ourselves if the labour market allows it. We can incorporate some of the work Deloitte does for us into our own organisation. The same goes for the Blueriq engineers. Could we bring in more Blueriq knowledge ourselves?
Van Deenen: “That’s what Blueriq always has in mind: to also train people in the organisation so that they can ultimately do the work themselves. Blueriq is also well-suited to that. The platform is flexible and user-friendly. It’s much more a question of logical thinking and seeing things from the perspective of the business rather than having to acquire all the technical IT knowledge. Once the platform is up and running, modelling is easy and user-friendly. This is already happening in many organisations, which have their own modellers who work independently with Blueriq software. But there’s always a Blueriq team available in the background to ensure continuity.”
Johan Maas: “I'm not a technician myself, but what I do know is that you can see Blueriq software as a kind of Lego base plate. You can arrange – configure – the Lego bricks in a different way, but you can also create – model – new Lego bricks. I hope I’m not short-changing Blueriq by saying this.”
Jan: “Definitely not! And this isn’t just a good metaphor – it’s also a nice compliment. It’s the simplicity that makes Blueriq software so unique. On our platform, business engineers create a model that can be validated with the business. That model is the application. No translation steps, no transformations, no code generation or adjustments. Or in plain language: no room for noise on the line. If there are errors or omissions, they are in the model, which means it can be adjusted quickly and frequently.”
And if we look beyond RVO and Blueriq? Which changes do you expect in the chain? Johan Maas: “Because of this corona crisis, we’ve all started to think more carefully about where we can use IT to improve services. Where can organisations help each other in this area? Implementing agencies need to work more effectively with each other, especially in the area of IT. These systems are now often separate, but in the future we’ll need each other’s help more and more to optimise services to citizens and businesses. We need to start thinking about how we can standardise data and share it in a GDPR-proof way and how we can get IT systems to work together securely. Crossover platforms: that's where we need to go.”
Jan: “This development is taking place everywhere in the market, both privately and publicly. Take the purchase of a home. You need the same information for the mortgage lender as you do for the solicitor. You should only have to enter that data in a digital document once. And then you should always remain the owner of the data and be able to supervise and control the way it is distributed. The implementing agencies now also want to work in this way. We must realise that across all the parties.”
Johan: “But we must never lose sight of the human dimension during this standardisation process. And security and ownership of your data should always be the top priority.”
Jan: “I think that we as Blueriq can operate excellently in that chain. We can be the link that creates the connections between all those different IT solutions. What’s more, we’re accustomed to looking at things from the perspective of the end user – in this case the entrepreneur. The operating method must also be transparent.”
Johan Maas: “I agree that we must supervise that carefully. A customer-friendly, safe and efficiently-processing crossover platform would be a huge step forward. In other words, a small comfort for all this corona misery. Whether this particular plan succeeds or not, I’m convinced that cooperation in the field of ICT can provide much more added value. So that the Netherlands can come out of this crisis better.”