The Danish Ambassador to the UK, Lars Thuesen, has provided some background on the Denmark approach to digital government that this week saw it rise to the top of the United Nations’ e-Government rankings.
Denmark was ranked number nine in the previous set of UN e-Government rankings in 2016 when the UK was named number one. This week Denmark hit the top as the UK slipped to number four.
Speaking at a recent trade show, Thuesen discussed the Danish Digital Model, explaining that Denmark has for the last 15 years “quite aggressively” followed an “ambitious” digital agenda for its public sector.
The policy saw Denmark become ranked as the number 1 nation for digital public services, firstly by the EU and the OECD, and now by the UN for e-Government.
He said, “The most obvious milestone in the development of digital government in Denmark is that it is now mandatory to use digital in the communication between citizens and government. This goes for both companies and citizens and for communication with both central and local government. And several digital self-service applications have experienced near universal take-up.”
He added, “There are of course exceptions for those, who for some reason or another, have difficulties using digital services. But for everybody else we have now seen a nearly complete channel shift.”
He admitted that there are some particular characteristics to the country that affect its approach to digital public services.
“Denmark is relatively small. With 5m inhabitants, it’s about the population size of Yorkshire. It has a relatively high tax rate and a high-level of public sector involvement in the lives of citizens. Generally, there is a very high degree of trust in the public sector. People expect services to work properly in order to meet the needs of citizens,” he said.
“There is a high degree of internet penetration; 94% have internet at home, 89% use the internet daily, and over a 12-month period, 88% of citizens, interact digitally with public authorities.
“I think it is fair to say that the push for digital in the last 15 years has to large extent been driven by a cost agenda. Like many western societies, Denmark has a demographic challenge, which leads to increased demands on the public sector. Since there is little appetite for higher tax rate, we need to be efficient where we can, so that there are sufficient resources for the public sector to support those that need it the most.
“You might have heard of the Danish word ’hygge’, and think all Danes care about, is enjoying nice food, at candlelight with warm blankets, and maybe playing with Lego. But Danes at heart are very pragmatic and commercially-focused, resulting in efficiency as being one of the key drivers of our digitisation experience. It is much cheaper for taxpayers, if citizens and businesses can operate digitally, and it also frees up front line staff to better serve citizens, who struggle to help themselves.”
Thuesen explained that one of the cornerstones of the Danish model was laid in 1968, when Denmark introduced the so-called CPR-register, a central database of every person residing in Denmark.
“I am aware, that this has been a controversial topic here in the UK, but it was introduced in Denmark before anybody was worried about the surveillance society, and it is now such an integrated part of Danish society, that we can’t imagine what we would do without it.”
He continued, “The more recent push for digital in the public sector started about 15 years ago. There have been four major stages in this period. In 2001, a digital signature was created; all public sector bodies were obliged to be open to receiving emails, and authorities started communicating digitally internally.”
In 2004, Thuesen said, an “Easy Account” was created; and the public sector required eInvoicing 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, with a cross-government identity verification “EasyID” created. A cross-government secure mail box for every citizen was also launched, to be used for communication between the public sector and the citizen.
Thuesen said, “It is worth noting that these two initiatives were launched in co-operation with the private sector banks in Denmark, which now use the same infrastructure for e-banking. For the individual citizen this means that he or she uses basically the same login-procedure when ordering a new passport as when he or she checks the bank balance or pays bills. And bank statements are read in the same secure mail-box as letters from the council.”
In the same year, he added, it was made compulsory for all public authorities to use the common ICT infrastructure to ensure the efficiency gains.
In 2011 there was a significant channel shift, in which “Digital Post” for citizens and businesses was made mandatory. Similarly, online self-service became mandatory for both citizens and business.
“The fact that we have made digital mandatory often comes as something of a shock. Danes believe that if the digital service is good enough, and the costs are so much cheaper, why should people be able to choose to use a more expensive service?
“But of course, as I mentioned, not everyone can use 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 etc. for those who struggle with digital services.”
The result, Thuesen explained, is that Denmark now has the highest take-up of digital public services in the OECD – around 70%.
“Interestingly, this is not only amongst the highly educated. They may be more likely to use digital services, but in Denmark even people with no or low education have a take-up rate of 60%. This compares to a figure of 10% in the UK.”
Thuesen quoted a number of statistics on take-up, notably that application for maternity benefits has a digital take-up rate of 100%; registration for primary and lower-secondary education has a take-up rate of 97%; and even application for state pension has a rate of 95%, proving that digital is not only for the younger generation.
Thuesen said, “Our best estimate is that this push for digital in the public sector in the last 15 years has freed up £300m per year in efficiency gains.
“To sum up, the key to Danish digitisation has been to focus on delivering the basic infrastructure centrally, so agencies and municipalities can re-use common services. So everyone in Denmark has a national e-identity. It’s a bit like the UK ‘Verify’ programme, except usage is shared between public and private sector.
“There is the ‘digital post’ system, which provides everyone in Denmark with a secure email – so all messages from government to citizen or from business to government are sent digitally. Citizens can define a default bank account for use for transactions with the state.
“And we also have several core data registers: a national citizen data register, where citizens can authorise their data to be used across multiple agencies, a national building data register where all buildings and addresses are stored.”
Thuesen also highlighted the work of the Danish Agency for Digitisation and the Danish supplier cBrain, whose F2 software platform is used by more than half of ministerial departments in Denmark, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is also used by Liverpool City Council and by other national governments.