Some of you may have read about how I left SOCITM’s annual conference in Leicester this week feeling completely underwhelmed. However, that’s not because of the content that was delivered. One speech in particular caught my attention, as it focused on some of the issues that are at the core of the UK’s problems – namely getting local and central government to interact online and pushing forward with a digital agenda.
Thomas Frandzen, special advisor to Denmark’s Agency for Digitisation, kicked the conference off by explaining how the country passed into law and made it mandatory for all able citizens to do most of their government business online – whilst still taking into account the digitally excluded.
Frandzen described it as one of the “most ambitious e-government initiatives in the world”, as it involved not only moving citizen interactions online, but also moving the government’s postal system online.
He explained how this required a cross-government effort:
We have national, regional and local governments. The sub-national level is responsible for most of the spending and for delivering the services to the end-user citizens. Therefore the success of the e-government initiatives in Denmark rely on and depend to a large extent on an intent and constructive cooperation between the different levels of government. We have a tradition of making national e-government strategies that are agreed upon and then made jointly with representatives from the regional and local government levels.
We are on our 4th national e-government strategy, each of which have been about four or five years. Which is why I think we have been able to achieve this, one of the most ambitious switchovers from analogue to digital in the public sector anywhere in the world.
The transition has required commitment from all levels of government.
Self-service and online post
This is particularly relevant to the UK, which I believe is missing an opportunity to tie up central and local government priorities. Franzen explained how the strategy had a two pronged approach: mandatory digital self-service and mandatory digital post, both of which have been introduced through legislation.
Basically, for most citizen interactions with government in Denmark, you will most likely have to do it online (if you are able). He said:
Over the last four years the Danish government has introduced and passed legislation that makes digital self-service mandatory on 89 different service areas. Some of which are managed by local municipalities, some of which are provided by a central government.
These include applications for health cards, maternity allowance, housing allowance, old age pensions, booking of campsites. All of these self-service solutions are available by the national citizen’s portal.
The solutions are made and provided by the local authorities, but they are integrated in this common national citizens portal. It has not affected the responsibilities for delivering the services and the local municipalities have some freedom to implement and decide the self-service solution. But in most cases several municipalities use the same solution. But they do have the freedom to choose which one they want.
The possibility of finding everything in one place makes it easier for the citizen, which more often than not doesn’t care who is providing the service anyway.
Again this rings true for problems here in the UK, where a lot of local government assumes that central involvement naturally means lesser control of services. Denmark is a case in point as to why that is not the case.
The digitally excluded
Frandzen explained that although mandatory digital interaction may seem extreme, when considering that there is inevitably always going to be people that can’t get access to the internet, the Danish government has taken steps to ensure that no-one is excluded.
We knew that we would have to pay special attention to those citizens that are not able to or have difficulty using digital communication. Concerning digital self-service, the law stipulates that alternative ways of applying must be offered should a citizen be unable to use the digital solution provided by the authority. In effect a citizen that has difficulties applying digitally, should contact the responsible authority and the authority will offer guidance on how to use digital self service. And if this is not enough an alternative way of applying will be provided.
If there is one thing that we could not and cannot accept is for some citizens to suffer potentially life threatening consequences or losing the rights to certain benefits, because they are unaware or unable to check their digital post. Therefore the switch over has been accompanied by a massive campaign and a huge outreach programme to groups that we thought might have difficulties using digital communications. We entered a dialogue into a number of special interest groups, some of them being elderly organisations, disability organisations, networks, organisations working with immigrants, social housing groups and so on.
In Spring 2015 almost 80% of all transactions were performed by Denmark’s digital self service. On November 1st 2014, 97% of citizens above the age of 15 knew the digital post was going to happen. Almost 70% of citizens signed up for digital post before it became mandatory. It’s now been almost a year since Denmark introduced digital post and more than 60 million letters have been sent to citizens online since January 1st this year.
Denmark expects savings of £200 million a year.