Why Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador


The Danish Ambassador to the UK explains that whilst nation states are still important, the influence of tech giants can’t be ignored.

The Danish Ambassador to the UK took to the stage last week at the Think Digital Government 2017 conference in London to explain why Denmark felt it important to create the world’s first Digital Ambassador.

Giving a speech on why Denmark is ‘probably the best digital nation in the world’, Ambassador Lars Thuesen said that the influence of the world’s technology giants cannot be ignored and that Denmark’s Digital Ambassador will allow for the likes of Google and Amazon to share information with the Danish government on upcoming services that will impact society.

Casper Klynge was appointed as Denmark’s Digital Ambassador back in May and will be based out in Silicon Valley, in order to create a line of communication between the US tech companies and the Danish government. The likes of Facebook and Apple have committed to building data centres in Denmark in recent months.

Thuesen explained to delegates at Friday’s Think Digital Government event in London that Denmark felt that it didn’t know what was happening, with regards to plans technology companies had for changing the shape of society. Denmark wants to be able to prepare for that and be given the opportunity to form regulation in anticipation of new services. The Ambassador described how when Uber launched in Denmark, it didn’t have the regulation in place to adapt to the change, and as a result Uber was banned. Ambassador Thuesen explained:

We’ve been preparing for this posting of a Digital Ambassador for the last year because we realised that whilst nation states are important in this world, if you look at the international influence of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Alibaba, etc., you might say that the influence of some of these companies on politics and the development of society, is a lot bigger than if we are talking about nation states.

We are not represented in the heart of the industry, which affects peoples’ lives, it affects government policies, it affects all aspects of our daily lives. So we thought maybe it’s time to think completely differently and not just look at the nation states, but look at the big players. And so we started to talking to Google, Microsoft, and we found out that they also were looking for more interactions with the governments.

Denmark’s digital history

As noted above, Thuesen’s speech largely focused on how Denmark has a strong track record on the digital delivery of public services, where it has been ranked the number one nation for digital by the European Union and the OECD.

There are a number of reasons why Denmark has managed to succeed in digital public service delivery, whilst other nations struggle. For one, Denmark has made it mandatory for citizens and businesses to digitally communicate with government – so there is almost universal uptake. It also has a high degree of internet penetration in the country – with 94% of citizens having internet at home and 89% of citizens using the internet on a daily basis.

Equally, back in 1968, Denmark introduced its CRP a register, a central database of every single person residing in the country. Thuesen commented on this aspect of the country’s digital plans by saying:

I am aware that this has been a controversial topic in the UK, but it was introduced in Denmark long before anyone was worried about the surveillance society. And it has now become such an integrated part of our society that we can’t imagine what we would do without it.

Equally, the Ambassador acknowledges that Denmark’s size may have helped speed things along. However, he added that it’s also about citizens’ attitude to public service delivery. He said:

Denmark is relatively small. With 5.7 million inhabitants, it is about the size of Yorkshire. It has a relatively high tax rate and high level public sector involvement in the lives of citizens.

I do think that size matters, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a lot easier for a small country like Denmark to implement these kinds of solutions. But it’s not all about being small.

We are unique in a lot of senses, but we are unique in that we have a lot of trust in the public authorities. We have a huge public sector in Denmark compared to a lot of other countries and it’s based on the trust that this is for the benefit of society. So when initiatives are launched by the government, we don’t meet a lot of resistance. There’s a willingness to look at it in a positive spirit, that’s helpful for sure.

The technology

Although public attitude towards government has obviously been helpful to Denmark, the Danish government has also implemented a number of technology platforms that have enabled the delivery of services. Ambassador Thuesen said the key “has been to focus on delivering the basic infrastructure so that agencies and municipalities can re-use common services”.

And this has been important when faced with an ageing demographic and a lack of appetite to raise taxes, as in many parts of the western world. Thuesen said that the efficiencies gained from Denmark’s 15-year long digital journey have resulted in £300 million a year in savings, allowing for resources to be applied to citizens that need them the most. He said:

It is much, much cheaper for tax payers if citizens and businesses can operate digitally. And it also frees up frontline staff to better serve citizens, that struggle to help themselves.

Often the fact that we have made digital mandatory comes as a shock to some people. However, the Danish believe that digital service is good enough, and the cost is so much cheaper, why should people be able to choose the more expensive service?

Of course, not everyone can use the digital services. Being efficient where we can, also means that we have the right resources to make assisted digital services available in council buildings and libraries for those that struggle with digital services.

In Denmark, application for maternity benefits has a digital take-up of 100%. Registration for primary and lower-secondary education, has a take-up rate of 97%. Even application for state pensions has a rate of 95%, “proving that digital is not only for the younger generations”.

Thuesen also described the core technology platforms implemented. He said:

In 2001, a digital signature was created. All public sector bodies were obliged to being open to receiving emails. And authorities starting started communicating digitally, internally.

Two, in 2004 an e-share account was created and public sector required e-invoicing from their suppliers. Cross government portals were developed for the healthcare sector and for company interaction with the public sector.

In 2007, the cornerstones of the digital infrastructure were launched. A cross government identity verification was created. Similarly a cross government secure mailbox for every citizen was launched for communication between the public sector and citizens. In the same year, it was made compulsory for all public sector authorities to use the common ICT infrastructure to ensure the efficiency gains.

Then in 2011, came the big channel shift, where digital post for citizens and business was made mandatory. Similarly, online self service became mandatory for both citizens and business.

The result of all of this is that Denmark has the highest take up of digital services in the OECD.

diginomica/government is working in partnership with Think AI for Public Sector 2017, click on the image below for more details

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Disclosure - diginomica is working in partnership with Think Digital Partners, the creators of Think Digital Government.

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