Rikke Hougaard Zeberg, director-general of the Agency for Digitisation, Denmark, answers Government Europa’s questions about digitisation in society and the Digital Post project.
As everyday life increases in its dependence on digital skills, tools and applications, it is inevitable that the public sector will make this same transition. Officials in Denmark regard digitisation as a key driver in ensuring that the public sector is coherent, accessible and citizen-orientated. Since November 2015, the country’s Digital Post strategy seeks to ensure mandatory compliance, whereby citizens receive official communications from the public sector, digitally.
The Agency for Digitisation, working within the Ministry of Finance, in Denmark, was established in 2011, in efforts to enforce government digitisation policies and its ambitions, whether those stem from central government, regions, or municipalities. Driving public sector collaboration, the Agency for Digitisation is working towards a digital transformation of the public sector – from mindset to future vision. Government Europa spoke to Rikke Hougaard Zeberg, director-general of the Agency for Digitisation, Denmark, questions about digitisation in society and the country’s Digital Post project.
Why is the digitisation of communication so important, as well as the digitisation of societies more widely?
For me, digitisation is a part of our everyday life – and it has been so for quite a number of years. And actually, as a citizen, I do expect our public sector to be as easily accessible online as we see and experience in the private sector where services can be used 24/7.
It should be easy for citizens to find information about public services online and then utilise these digitally. Therefore, borger.dk was launched in 2007 as a single point of access for digital self-service and information about the public sector.
Digitisation has proven to be an effective and efficient tool to rethink processes and workflows in the public sector. The tradition of joint public sector strategic work on digitisation entails continuous endeavours for closer public sector collaboration, deliver good, efficient and coherent services to the public and businesses.
For us, efficiency and quality are closely linked. We want to make our public sector more coherent and user focused. And we cannot do that without a digital transformation of the way the public sector works and deliver services. This is at the core of the Danish government’s coherency reform of public services.
This is the reason why we, for several decades, have prioritised digitisation and transformation in the public sector – in order to sustain our welfare society!
What is the extent of Denmark’s digital ambition? What will its future look like?
The future is what we are preparing right now! The future has been an integrated part of our transformation efforts in the public sector since the start of this millennium. We have made more than 100 different public services mandatory by law, to use online – not because we want to make life more difficult for our citizens and businesses, but because it actually makes life easier.
Going mandatory by law does not mean that we leave our less resourceful citizens behind; we want to ensure that these citizens are helped. By asking our resourceful citizens to help themselves online we free up more time to care for those citizens who, for different reasons, cannot help themselves online.
And we have been quite surprised at how well our mandatory approach has worked in real life: many elderlies are capable and, increasingly, can help themselves online. This was a surprise to us. 90.6% of our population aged 15 and above are registered for receiving official letters through a government-provided digital letter box, Digital Post.
Initially, we thought this would be around 80% with 20% asking for an exemption from the law. Today, 9.4% have asked for an exemption from the law at their local citizen service centre in the municipality where they live. But, we are much more ambitious.
We want to make our public sector a service to our citizens and businesses, and not a hassle. We have ensured efficiency and effectiveness, now, it is about giving the citizens quality and value.
One example of this is our national citizen portal, borger.dk. We collaborate with authorities in the public sector to provide more personalised content for citizens in different life situations.
For a number of years, all of our citizens have been presented with the same content on My Page when they log in using their NemID. With close collaboration between authorities we are able to personalise the display of data for selected segments of citizens, and borger.dk, enabling more targeted content. For example, citizens at the brink of retirement will be presented with content especially relevant for them when they log in to borger.dk.
We want to give the citizens the best possible information in their interactions with the public sector, and this is one step of the way.
What kind of impact has the Digital Post initiative had in your efforts to realise the transition to digitisation of practices?
Overall, it has been a tremendous success. We made it mandatory by law to receive official letters online through a government-provided Digital Post account in 2013 for businesses, and in 2014 for citizens.
Today, it is widely accepted to receive official letters digitally through Digital Post. Digital communication has become an accepted way to communicate with public authorities in Denmark.
Besides providing our society with an easily accessible digital letter box – a solution which 81% finds satisfactory or very satisfactory to use – we have been able to achieve significant cost savings in the public sector as a whole.
However, the transformation has not happened over night. It is a process which has been ongoing for more than 15 years – since the beginning of the millennium.
What more do you believe needs to be done at an EU level to ensure that endeavours, such as yours, are common practice across Europe?
We are working closely with the commission and with other member states to push the digital agenda forward. We fully support the ambition and vision of creating a digital single market, but we need to do it in a way that does not create new barriers for those countries who want to accelerate further down the digital path.
In my opinion, a digital single market will not happen if we are not all on the same digital level across the EU. But common policies and approaches need to ensure that we help less developed parts of our union, whilst not hampering those countries, like Denmark, who are pursuing their own ambitions in digitisation.
Digital front runners are necessary to show the way forward and I think Denmark, together with other digitally advanced countries in and outside Europe, can show the way.
What are your priorities for the remainder of the Digital Strategy 2016-2020? How will these be achieved?
Our most significant achievement – making the use of public online services mandatory by law – has also shown weaknesses in our approach, for example in the user-friendliness of services.
While we were focused on putting services online for mandatory use, ensuring that each of these services comply with a minimum set of user compatibility and accessibility requirements, our citizens were not completely satisfied – they still found the public online service cumbersome and were not easily navigated.
In my view, we forgot that user-friendliness is not the user-friendliness of a single online service, it is the user-friendliness of the whole user journey, without regard to levels of government and organisational boundaries.
We should make it easier for citizens to logically find their way through, what can sometimes be, a complicated public sector system. When we use public online services, we use it in specific situations defined by our current life-situation. If I lose my job, I need to register with the local job centre, consider applying for social benefits due to a reduced income, etc. This is the reason why we, in this strategy period, have put a lot of resources into making not just single services easier to use, but life events and user journeys easier and more user-friendly.
Another issue is the increasing threat to our digital world: cyber and information security threats.
Even though the public sector has worked systematically with cyber and information security for many years, the latest incidents with hackers and ransomware has shown us how important it is to further strengthen our common approach to security.
Since 2014, we have had a government decision to implement the international security standard, ISO 27001, into central administration organisations. The Danish government will soon launch a strengthened cyber and information security strategy.
Even though digitisation has been a key lever for public sector reforms and transformation in Denmark for many years, it has also revealed new challenges which we simply need to address, but I think we are capable of that. And I think that digital transformation is necessary, disrupting traditional thinking of how the public sector should work, and will be working, in the future.
In my opinion, our public sector needs to catch up with the rest of society: everyday life is digital, and the public sector should be the same.