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EXCLUSIVE - From EU Policy to execution in digital processes at the Danish AgriFish Agency

Adam Grønlykke Mollerup is the Head of Department in the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food, the AgriFish Agency, where his responsibilities include European Union (EU) relations and negotiations, agricultural policy and digital transformation of the direct subsidies. We spoke to him about translating EU framework into processes and ultimately payments at the national level. Mr. Mollerup also discussed the challenges of cross-country policy coordination across EU.

Mr. Mollerup has been working on public sector leadership and digital transformation through the last 15 years and he has played a key role in the digitisation of the public sector in Denmark, including the coordination of the Public Sector Digital Strategy 2016-2020. He was previously responsible for public sector modernisation and digitisation programmes in the Danish Ministry of Economics and the Interior and the Danish Ministry of Finance. He has also worked with digital government strategies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where he published a number of country studies and synthesised international good practices.

Can you tell us about your department and role at the Danish Agrifish Agency?

The Danish Agrifish Agency is part of the Ministry of Environment and Food. I am heading the department of Direct Payments, where we deal with part of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The purpose is basically about ensuring a stable food supply of high quality, produced in a financially and environmentally sustainable way at affordable prices.

This is a core element of the EU’s policies and it has an annual budget of more than 60 billion Euros at the European level and around roughly 1 billion Euros in Denmark. My department is responsible for the entire value chain related to the direct payments to farmers, a term for agricultural subsidies. Basically, we provide subsidies to farmers in order to ensure an income floor, provided that they comply with EU and national regulations.

This means that we deal with everything from negotiating the common agricultural policy and its administration in Brussels, all the way to ensuring the final implementation of the regulations, following up on the payments, the compliance control, etc. This includes how you design the administration and the case handling, how you digitise the operations and the core processes.

Cross-country policy coordination at an European level is complex and might seem cumbersome at times. We need to transform those complex processes and regulation into a more agile digital service delivery. And this is one of the challenges we are addressing now.

For me personally, it has also been a very exciting and rewarding shift, building on my previous experience in policy and strategy-making, to now focus much more on implementation and execution in the day-to-day operations.

Can you give some example of the kind of challenges that you said are being faced for this cross-country coordination?

Just to give you a very simple example, right now we have been negotiating for more than a year about a long series of simplification processes, of which some are supposed to be implemented across all EU member countries effective as of January 2018.

However, we still haven’t reached an agreement on the implementation of these measures. This gives us very little time to adapt this into national regulation and to ensure the proper administrative design of the revised administration, ensuring also the proper IT support. We need to be sufficiently agile for us to deliver in a timely manner.

And we come from very different places across the EU. Right now, we have a pretty strong level of digitisation in Denmark in general, and in the public sector in particular. This is also true for the area of Direct Payments that I am heading. We communicate with our customers only through our digital platform. Our customers sign in using the joint national digital ID. Our current file handling basically has an automation level of around 80%. This means that in 8 out 10 cases, the farmer’s application is fully automated, including communication and payments. Some cases still involve manual file handling. We do support these manual processes digitally and we are working on how to increase the level of automation, so that we get a kind of ‘no touch’ administration. And we are looking into how robotics can help us increase the automation levels even further. The challenge is that the more complex the rules, the harder to automate and even to digitize.

One of the main issues that we are facing now, also at the European level, is that when you think and talk about digital transformation today, the rules and the services are still not ‘born’ digitally by design.

We need to strengthen our institutional capacity to integrate digital into our policy processes at all stages. Digital is not something you can start looking at, once you have the rules in place. Digital is the omnipresent condition for public service delivery. This is also likely to be one of the focus areas in the coming reform of the CAP.

Do you interact only vertically with the EU or also horizontally with the other member states?

Both. At the European level, we have a number of formalized agricultural policy committees, bodies and other fora. We also have some different more or less formal groups and networks across the other member countries in order to coordinate policies and positions, ensuring alignment and sharing good practices in the implementation of the CAP. And bilateral contacts for other occasions. We have a very large international policy tool-box that we are using fully.

What has been the impact of recent technological developments on the agriculture sector in Denmark?

What some have called the Fourth Industrial Revolution is sweeping across all different sectors, albeit with different speeds and intensities, also across countries. This also goes for agriculture.

This means that in practice the sector is being increasingly digitised, which again means that you have data integrated in all parts of the processes. You enable more intelligent processes and services. You enable the emergence of completely new services. What we also see is the beginning of entirely new ecosystems, built on more intelligent, data-based services, ensuring that you can target your agricultural activities in a better manner.

One example, which is also a Danish government priority, is to support the development of precision farming, which is basically about joining up all these new sources of information in the field of agriculture and farming. This includes all sorts of sources, from weather predictions, data from geo-positioning devices, satellite and drone imagery, soil and crop health sensors, etc. - and integrate this data into the farming management process, by aggregating them, applying them, and enabling a better steering of farming activities.

This implies, say for example, that farmers are able to use fertilizer and plant protection in a much more intelligent and precise manner, so that the use of pesticides is limited to where the effect is greatest. It also means that they can reduce the consumption of water, which is increasingly a sparse resource. And it means the farmers can better plan and optimise their yields and activities throughout the year. And this is obviously not only good for the farmers’ private economy but it is also good for the environment and in the end, also for the consumers.

At the same time, it also sets up a new context for us, as a public agency, where we need to adapt to the new expectations of this increasingly digitised and changing environment. Where we need to evolve our organization and services to meet the expectations of our environment, and our customers.

What is being done to make the services more user-centric and to cope with the demands of this rapidly changing environment?

This is a high strategic priority for the Danish AgriFish Agency. And for the Danish public administration in general, the national Digital Strategy also focus on user-centricity.

In the Danish AgriFish Agency, we work hard to ensure focus on the users, although this is not an easy task. In public administrations, we tend to think and act like in silos from traditional bureaucracies. We need to transform our culture, our organisations, making use of user-centric tools and measuring the norm. We need to turn around our way of thinking, turn it ‘outside-in’, so to say.

We are doing this both at the business level and at the IT level, where we trying to become more agile. We have a continued and very close dialogue with our users and their representatives, through workshops, engagements, conferences, user tests, and data driven improvements. We try to establish learning iterations throughout the entire value chain of the different services that we deliver.

This is work-in-progress. But I think it’s a fair question to ask if we are doing enough and what we could do to support this process even further.

The success of a private company can be measured on the top and the bottom line, whereas a public organisation is also about delivering political results, common norms and values, and balancing a mix of diverging interests. The customers, and user-centrism as such, are in that sense a top priority, but sometimes, a priority competing with other concerns. This could be regulatory compliance, the level of administrative costs, or prioritization of particular interests. So stakeholder management is an important part of delivering to the expectations of all our customers.

We need to cope with this, overcome these structural and institutional challenges, and build the capacity to consistently deliver and evolve our value proposition to our customers and users through our regulation and through our digital services. This is heavy lifting – but effective execution is where the real value is created.

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