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Associate feature: Lessons from Scandinavia

Industry leaders met in Edinburgh to discuss what Scotland can learn from Scandinavia | Alamy

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Associate feature: Lessons from Scandinavia

The world of public service delivery is shifting, and that shift is largely being facilitated by the advancement and implementation of new digital technologies bringing a wide variety of potential benefits to the public purse and to public service users. Alongside more efficient services, if adopted correctly, governments and businesses can make sizeable savings while increasing transparency between bodies and their citizens, and generally achieve a greater buy-in to public services.  

The enthusiastic adoption of digital technology across the public sector by a variety of Scandinavian countries is rightly being held as a benchmark for other countries like Scotland to aspire to. But it has deep roots. Denmark, for instance, began its digital transformation back in 2001 by introducing; digital signatures, emails to public sector bodies, and authorities communicating digitally with its citizens. Over 20 years on and that journey and the nation’s digital ability is much further developed, incorporating a fully digital service, with an efficient IT management system and cyber and information security, while adding aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) to its public service delivery.   

One of the architects of Denmark’s digital journey, Thomas Rysgaard Christiansen, now a partner at Netcompany, attributes four factors to the success of the service; building infrastructure, setting clear goals and quick wins, alignment on all level of government, and working in cooperation with the private sector.  

In trying to answer what is stopping Scotland from following in the footsteps of Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Holyrood, in partnership with Netcompany, brought leading figures in the Scottish Government’s digital transformation together to hear from Christiansen and to explore the digital journeys of both nations.  

Christiansen attributes the success of Denmark’s public sector digital presence to “starting really early”, and every strategy has placed an emphasis on infrastructure, either improving or adding new components. But having something tangible to show for the work is imperative to its continued advancement.  

“When you have a government that has been elected for a period of time then you basically have four years to get results.” 

He also points to Denmark’s unique position of being able to align its approach to digital transformation across different levels of government, saying that some European countries have not been able to do this and some even “have laws saying they can’t talk to each other”.  

“We have had one strategy, with different assignments to different levels of government, which is something I don’t see a lot. It has been very good to be able to focus on the citizen, as opposed to the different government branches and what they need.” 

Christiansen said that in the last ten years in Denmark, “a lot of the work has taken place at a local government level”. He highlighted the structure of the Danish Government, particularly locally. All 98 municipalities are in control of “everything that touches the citizens”, leaving policy to the state and areas like healthcare to the five regional governments. “All the citizen services are there [at the local level], and the majority of the taxes end up in the municipalities”. 

The municipalities have also been making most of the investments into digital solutions at a governmental level. In 2008, the local governments sold off their IT company. The move described as “brave” by Christiansen, meant they let go of 3,000 employees that had been working on solutions for nine years. The municipalities then used some of the money from the sale to set up a new organisation called KOMBIT, which Christiansen headed. 

The corporation, which had five mayors sitting on its board, was set up to look at “digital transformation differently”. KOMBIT’s model involved it procuring new digital systems for all 98 municipalities.  

“We would start a lot of projects based on the value and the benefit to local government. Then we would promote standardisation and try to make things more cohesive. We were losing people in the system because services were not tied together.” 

As aspirational as Danish model is, Richard Davies, country managing partner for Netcompany, suggested that it may be difficult to compare to it, but it is essential, like Christiansen says, to get the small wins early. He said: “It is really difficult to compare one country against the other, but most successful projects start small and you celebrate the wins and you replicate it.”

One of the biggest challenges for Denmark has been how to link the services correctly to provide the citizen with the best experience, something Christiansen now believes they have got right.  

Denmark now only communicates with its citizens digitally, unless citizens have a medical exemption, which is the case for around eight per cent of the country. “Besides the savings” which he says are “substantial”, it has “changed the way that we communicate”.  

Very early on in the country’s journey, cooperation with the private sector began. “A lot of what we do is driven by the private sector” explained Christiansen, and many of the services have “hooks into the private sector”. Not aligning both sectors will only harm the citizen, he explains, if there is no cooperation, they “get caught in journeys that really doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.”  

The Danish Government partnered with the banks in 2007 to develop eID. “It is owned by the government, but all banks and insurance companies use it as well”, and it is used by 5.1 million people – almost 90 per cent of the population.  

Christiansen was very clear about the role of government in IT, he said: “Government is not an IT company, it should not have a tonne of IT people developing things in government. We need to work with the market and understand how we create competition, and how we generate a team of vendors that understand the business of government.  

KOMBIT placed itself between the government and the vendors to deliver new systems. They would go to all 98 municipalities to show them the new system and tell them the cost.  In the beginning “this was a six-month process” to get them all on board with new systems. When he left it was cut down to a two-and-a-half-month process and “they all saw the advantage of doing this”.  

Jonathan Waldheim-Ross, head of service, product & delivery at NES Technology, told the roundtable that in his experience, NES Technology has struggled with reconciliation after different communities and bodies start using the same system. He said: “We have done that in a few different projects across NES, and what we have found difficult is the reconciliation afterwards. Say Scotland and Denmark have versions of an app, how do we keep benefitting as we run along in parallel?”

The other benefit to building KOMBIT was they were able to be more competitive in the talent market, something that is historically very difficult for the public sector to do while allowing risk to be taken away from the government. Christiansen said: “Government really liked placing risk in KOMBIT because if something went wrong it wasn’t hitting the newspapers with them as the focus.” 

Martyn Wallace, chief digital officer for the Scottish Local Government Digital Office, pointed out that Scotland has a “KOMBIT model at local government level”. Wallace explained the disconnect between the different levels of government in Scotland: “The challenge that we have is budgets, the money has to go to frontline services. We have the political persuasion, which is a four-year term, but our budgets only last a year. We need a four-year commitment in terms of budget to finish off what we started.

“There is an opportunity to pool our resources. The Digital Strategy For Scotland was co-authored between the local government and Scottish Government, and we have got things like common platforms.” 

Denmark decided to open up and begin to share its data “not only with other government branches but with citizens and companies”. Christiansen told the group that this has created new dynamics, and in the beginning, there was “a lot of fear” but he argues that “when we share it makes more sense for the citizens and companies so that they have the same view that we have within government”.  

Christiansen explained that it is these key parts of the infrastructure that are “very important to the way that we run digital government”. The structure of online government services is easy to navigate through a “citizen portal”. The Scandinavian public’s trust level is “very high” regarding digital government. In Denmark 92 per cent of people trust digital solutions, while 81 per cent trust data handling, the latter being a figure that Christiansen believes can still be improved. And the public’s trust is reflected in smartphone download figures; the top four apps in Denmark are government-run.   

Jonathan Cameron, deputy director of digital health and care for the Scottish Government, argues that Scotland needs to be “braver”. He said: “Something that Covid taught us is there is a willingness to go ahead even if the solution isn’t perfect. 
“But particularly in health, where I come from there’s a joke; where you have ten consultants, you get 15 opinions.” 

On a positive note, Cameron said some of the key building blocks are in place alongside a “clearer strategy around data” which will allow us to “start linking things like social security up with health and try to break down those barriers”.  

Wallace said there was an urgency now to see change happen. He said: “I think the conditions are right now, budgets are so tight, and we are in a cost-of-living crisis, we must innovate. Digital is the lever that we can pull to get the outcomes that we want.” 

Neil Ferguson, head of corporate functions at Revenue Scotland, suggested that Scotland needs to take the approach it did when implementing a tax system in the early days of devolution. He said: “When you are going through a big period of change, all you are worried about is getting the lights on. For us it was get a tax system up and running, get the money in, and do it in a year. It wasn’t about creating a wonderful back office system. It was get the lights on and worry about the rest later.”

Julie Lapiazza, digital programme lead for the Scottish Government, told the roundtable that there is still a lot of buy-in needed from people on the digital programme, while there is “strong political backing”. 

“I think at the core of some of the challenges that we are facing at the moment comes back to people and attitudes towards ingrained ways of working. You can start to see, through our work on the digital programme, both sides; you can see people’s hopes and fears, they see the value and the additional support, but there is that letting go of certain levels of control that people are always going to have problems with.” 

Lee Rutherford, head of digital commercial strategy for the Digital Commercial Service of the Scottish Government, added: “There are different commercial approaches that we have tried to look at in the past, like digital concession opportunities for example. These things don’t come up often enough, and I think there should be a bigger push to try and capture that.”

The question of security was raised in the room, as the rate of cyberattacks has mounted since the beginning of the pandemic. Online solutions’ biggest threat is not external cyberattacks Christiansen explained, but instead “it is people forgetting their laptops, and therefore their data somewhere – we all have stories about laptops turning up at bus stops”. 

Colin Cook, director of economic development for the Scottish Government, argued that Scotland has done much of what Christiansen described, but questioned why that had “not been translated into consistent success”. 

“I think we are all coming to the same conclusion,” said Cook. “For some reason, the digital professionals haven’t managed to insert themselves into the mainstream of public service reform. They have been on the outside doing some really good work, but not really getting to the core of that debate, and that is still the issue.”

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