EXCLUSIVE - The next steps in Denmark’s digital government journey - A chat on user-centricity, security, trust and opening up data

Recently we interviewed Adam Grønlykke Mollerup, Head of Department, Danish AgriFish Agency, Ministry of Environment & Food, Denmark about his current role. Prior to this position, he was the Head of Division at the Agency of Digitisation within the Danish Ministry of Finance. He has previously worked with the Digital Government agenda in the OECD.

Following the interview, we had a chat with Mr. Mollerup regarding Denmark’s digital journey, the crafting of the Public Sector Digital Strategy 2016-2020, which provides the foundation for the Danish public sector of the future, across central, regional and local governments.

Below are our questions and Mr. Mollerup’s illuminating answers.

Denmark already has a highly digitised government. So how did you start formulating the Digital Strategy for the next 5 years?

When the work on the current strategy began, the first step for Denmark was to assess the state of government at the time, analysing the key challenges we were facing. To give some examples: There was a need to improve our capacity to deliver on IT projects further. We saw opportunities to improve the digital service quality and the coherence across authorities in some service delivery areas. There was a clear understanding that digital service delivery should help sustain the relative high trust in the public administration. There was an increased awareness of security. And in the context of the increasing Danish use of mandatory compliance arrangements, there was a great focus on the aspect of user-centricity.

While the Danish Agency for Digitisation has taken pride in focusing on delivery of tangible projects, we also recognised the need for the strategy to work as a guiding foundation for a continuous adaption to a rapidly changing context. The technological trends emerging are quickly materialising into public sector innovation and business prospects that we should be ready to pursue. There are great perspectives for artificial intelligence in the public sector. For automation and machine learning. For robotics. But the technological maturity matters, and from that perspective five years is a long time.

The Danish digital government strategies have been important public sector modernisation levers since 2001. They have particularly been driven by efficiency, which has implied a focus on value added through business cases. Delivering savings that could be prioritised for service development and quality improvement elsewhere in the public sector.

So, while we have developed a completely new range of services and increased quality on a number of parameters, we have also been cutting costs. We have realised a lot of cost savings by trimming our organisations. We have built the basic infrastructure and the necessary enablers are in place. And to a very large extent, we have succeeded in doing that in Denmark. We have today a very high level of general digitisation. Around 90% of all citizens communicate by digital means with the public sector across service areas.

What was the next step?

Then we started asking ourselves: How can we mainstream digitisation further across policy areas? How can we ensure that digital is not only considered a tool for efficiency, but also a tool to leverage policy and service quality?

How do we ensure that digital potential appears on the government agenda as a top priority, to increase efficiency, yes, but also to create growth, better services and higher satisfaction and trust among the citizens and the businesses?

This was the starting point of the strategy. And this is also why security plays a key role. Because digital is simply a part of everything today. Our everyday life today is digital. It is a crucial part of our infrastructure. This means that we need to handle our digital infrastructure in the way we handle other kinds of critical infrastructure.

There is a strong stress on ‘trust’ in the Digital Strategy. We see widely varying levels of trust in the government, which also affects what the government can accomplish in terms of digital transformation. For instance, people appear to trust the private sector with their data but are reticent when it comes to government. Can you tell us about building up trust in the public sector in Denmark?

I think trust is an extremely difficult and at the same time a very important issue to address. We have great data internationally to show that there is a very different cultural perception of who you can trust across countries and institutions.

In Denmark, we have a tradition of trusting the government with our data. We tend to be more skeptical trusting private businesses with our data. In other countries, the situation is the reverse.

We need to look at the trade-offs involved in the different levels of privacy. We typically have very high levels of privacy in the public sector, and at the European level, the attention to this agenda is increasing. At the same time, we can see that large private service providers are offering great and very smooth well-functioning services, in return for a vast number of private data. While this spurs continuous discussions, service appears to hold the upper hand for now.

This invites the idea that in a digital context, service-driven, rather than principle-driven discussions of privacy might end up with a different balance in the trade-off. Obviously, we need to ensure that we handle personal data carefully and in the right manner in order to maintain and further the trust in government, the public administration and the public sector at large.

The trust in the public sector we have been graced with in Denmark is not new, it has been built up through centuries. And while it can quickly vanish, it takes a long time to re-build.

Agriculture is a good example of this point. Denmark is a country with a strong agricultural tradition. Throughout the last centuries has emerged what we call cooperative movements. Basically, these cooperative movements have been about pushing forward voluntary, private cooperation in order to achieve synergies, economies of scale and to create communities around which people would work towards common goals. These movements have played a key role in the development of our industry at large in Denmark. And they have also contributed to, in my view, the development of trust between people, between institutions and between businesses, between organisations and between communities. This is part of the heritage that we are building on.

So how do we deal with this legacy today? Well this discretion to exploit data and public registries has enabled Denmark to move quite far in terms of digital service delivery and cooperation across service areas and authorities, although we still face a number of challenges in this regard. And it plays a key role in the ‘once-only’-agenda and the continued automation and development of new services. But of course, we need to pay very close attention to the way we handle and expose private data.

And further, the more data are accessible in a digital manner, the more they are open to fraud, to hacks or different kinds of mistakes. The playing field has suddenly increased dramatically. We need to convince the population that we are doing everything we can to avoid inexpedient use of personal data, that we are protecting their data and their privacy to the best of our ability.          

And at the same time, we need to prepare for the situations when such incidents might actually occur. The probability is high that they will indeed occur. And so the question follows, how will we deal with them without jeopardising the trust we have been shown?

Denmark has always been an open economy. But the level and the intensity of interactions from all sides have been accelerating with the digital economy. This is what we decided to deal with in the Digital Strategy.

Which is why some of the initiatives that we have suggested in the digital strategy are about professionalising security measures, about implementing higher level of standardisation in the way we handle information and personal data, in order to sustain trust levels.

We see some governments, especially the more advanced ones, trying to open up data to the private sector. What is Denmark doing in this area?

This is a key issue. We do see the potentials for opening and joining up data, and we feel the demand from different areas within the private sector, who can see the business cases, the market openings, around the booming data economy.

This is why some years ago, the government took a decision to open up the public data to the extent possible. And we have launched specific work on the most important data we have, the most important registries. We call this the Basic Data Programme.

This programme takes its point of departure in the fact that while you have increasing access to data of all kinds, the quality of this data is not always good and until recently only rarely available in a coherent and accessible format. But if the data quality is correct, you can re-use the basic data in case-handling, decisions and analysis across authorities. Again, this implies a great deal of trust in data and processes across organisations. But having high quality data easily accessible can simply us a lot of time and money. This also goes for the private sector which is also relies on good public registrations.

For example, a bank should know who actually owns a house, when someone applies for a loan to buy it, it should know the official income records of the person, how the ground is marketed and measured, where does it stop? Have other parties already taken up a mortgage in it? Or another example, insurance companies might be interested in knowing, where a house is placed topographically, if it is protected against strong rains expected or will the water be led straight into its basement? Direct digital access to authoritative and coherent data is important to make markets work well.

The Basic Data Programme covers most important public registries. This includes data on people, businesses, ownership, places, place names, topography, weather, and climate. All data are distributed via a coherent architecture and are accessible to all the public authorities who has the basis to access them in order to solve their mission – or private companies. Data sets can be combined. Lots of different sectors are interested in using this data and we are seeing new startups building their business around services based on this data.

So, we expose public data in order to ensure that both public authorities and private businesses can build on these public data. This covers non-confidential and confidential data. But the latter are only accessible if you comply with a certain set of rules within the existing legislation to protect privacy.

Entering the intelligent, data-based economy, we can start to distinguish a new role for the public sector. Where the government role remains authoritative in some data areas; government, and the public sector at large, becomes one player among others in the broader market driven data-based service development.

This is already happening now. And might imply an increasing battle for data distribution infrastructures – where the government might not have the capacity to maintain its role as ‘meta-governor’, but will need to engage with other players on a somewhat level playing field.

What are the most important learnings from the Danish experience in digital government in your view?

The answer depends on what kind of government is asking the question, and what path it has chosen for its digital transformation efforts.

But in general, I think some lessons can be learned from Denmark.

First of all, that deep, institutionalised cooperation across the whole of government really pays off. I think Denmark is in a privileged position now, because we have created effective governance mechanisms to ensure full implementation and use of digital services. We have not ‘merely’ focused on standalone issues of high political priority. We have ensured measures for the take-up of these services and the roll-out of our transformation projects. This capacity to establish a working cooperation that covers not only the state level, but also the regional and municipal level – and with regard to many vital infrastructure components, also with the private sector - has been important to integrate the way of thinking digital-by-default.

I think another lesson is that our consistent focus on the value proposition has been very important. I think we have prioritised and realised a lot of benefits in terms of digital transformation because we have focused on the clear business cases. Flexible organisations and labour market agreements have also played a key role here. This means that digitisation has not been driving up costs as we have seen it in a number of countries, but rather has been an effective tool that we have been able to use to modernise the government.

We have not solved the issue of benefits realisation and we are continuing to learn and adapt our approaches as we move along. But the question is how you realise the benefits in your budgets, at the heart of your organisations, in the day-to-day processes and in the service delivery to your customers. Because it is in the execution, in the implementation of the digitally redesigned organisations and processes, that you deliver value.

Perhaps the last point would be, as I have already touched upon, that we have been privileged by having a tradition of very good registries, enabled, among others, by a high level of trust in government. So, building good and trustworthy registries and creating an environment where they are used across all sectors, would also be a key learning.

And while the data-based economy holds enormous potential, bot for private sector growth and for public sector productivity gains, we need to develop and reinforce the capacity to analyse this data. Skills is a big issue.

While talking about lessons, we hear a lot about ‘leapfrogging’.  Countries at a currently low state of digital development can learn from the more advanced ones. Unburdened by legacy systems and processes, they can leapfrog the more developed countries. What are your view on this? Do you need foundations to enable this sort of leapfrogging?

Emerging economies that are building up their digital government programmes can to a large extent pick and choose from a large variety of different problems and solutions. They are also freer to select their sourcing strategies and platforms; to decide if they build on private sector platforms or build their own public sector platforms. To what extent should they leverage on private sector innovation. To what extent the government should be a coordinator building on a fully private infrastructure or it should build up its own infrastructure. To what extent it skips the PC based and goes straight to mobile. To what extent it creates directly peer to peer mechanisms, without the state as the focal point, in terms of both regulation and provision of services. I think there are many potentials for a completely new role of the state. But institutional heritage can be strong.

So yes, some countries may move fast, skip some steps, leapfrog as you suggest. But I don’t think it’s easy. The real challenges in those countries might not be legacy systems or digital heritage, nor even the access to capital and the capacity to invest.

The core issue is rather institutional capacity to take the right decisions and to implement them. And in that sense, I think there may still be a huge challenge for these countries you refer to.

At the same time, there are definitely considerable options to leapfrog in some areas, by sharing and adapting to suitable good practices. But I think it’s a path which each country will need to find and take on its own. 

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