Six lessons the UK can learn from Denmark’s path to digitisation

Denmark began paving the way to becoming one of the top digitised governments back in the 1970s, following an economic crisis that saw the country nearly default on its debts. This aligned the whole country to a reformist agenda, with a level of focus and commitment across parties that enabled a remarkable transformation. This eventually led to Denmark becoming #1 in the UN e-government index in 2018, and it has sustained a top position since.

Given Denmark’s track record, what can the UK learn from their journey?

Lesson one: Lead digitisation projects with clarity, alignment and trust

Denmark mostly operates under a minority coalition government, so delivering anything requires in-depth discussion and negotiation to get majority support for a proposed change. This may sound cumbersome, but it means decision-makers have absolute clarity on the goal, outcomes, risks and delivery method before projects begin. This level of cross-party alignment provides a stable strategy for execution.

Additionally, voter trust in government service delivery is key. Quality is high, and change is delivered on time and within budget. Plans are realistic, conditions are set for successful delivery, the realisation of cost reduction benefits are baked into finances and consequences are real if delivery fails.

Lesson two: Use a single citizen identifier

In Denmark, the basis of trust allows them to use a single identifier called MitID, an account for all citizens built with user experience in mind. Government processes are almost entirely automated and outcomes are reliable and efficient. For example, around 80% of benefits and payments require no handling from a case worker.

This enables the linking of data across services, making it easier to assess the long-term impact of policies across a broad set of outcomes and provides anonymised data-driven insights for new policymaking. Ultimately it reduces the effort required for operational staff and policymakers, whilst delivering a greater impact to society.

Lesson three: Centralise technology to support knowledge sharing

In 2009, Denmark created Kombit, a central organisation providing unified technology solutions across the country’s 98 municipalities (the Danish equivalent to local councils). Operating as a public-private partnership with €200m capital pooled from the municipalities, they can invest in higher quality products at a fraction of the previous IT spend.

This unified approach leads to valuable knowledge sharing between municipalities. Performance dashboards allow municipalities to compare their case handling times with others of similar size and demographic make-up to identify where they can improve their local operations. The investment also helped create a school communication platform for effective communication between stakeholders.

Lesson four: Commit to going paperless

20 years ago, Denmark committed to a paperless government, which has now been mostly achieved. The Digital Post and services are central to this, allowing all government services (as well as private banking and insurance services) to securely send official correspondence by email.

This has led to eliminating 1 billion letters per year, saving over £20 million in staff costs, £1 billion in postage costs and 25 kilotonnes of CO2. The service gives citizens confidence that the source is verified and allows the government to prove correspondence is received.

The impact on citizen experience has been the most transformative. By providing two-way instant communication, they have reduced the time it takes for citizens to get the outcome they need from months to days, even in complex edge-case situations.

Lesson five: Make use of cross-government decision making

When creating Denmark’s first digital strategy in 2002, the country brought together leaders from across the government into a single team in the Finance Ministry, which allowed better focus on cost reductions and kept the strategy at the heart of government. Much like the CDDO in the UK, this ensured understanding of issues and opportunities and buy-in to the priorities.

The Agency for Digitisation has also mapped out services across life events (which is also part of the UK GDS strategy). These are used to assess the impact of proposed change across government departments, which is factored into the business case.

Lesson six: Where possible, keep it simple

Throughout Denmark’s digitisation journey, vital lessons were learned that to truly reap the benefits of digital technology, policy and legislation, the underpinning services must be simplified. While this may be a given, it is challenging to align ministers, policy and operations.

Denmark has set a clear directive that every new law must reduce complexity. This not only makes it easier to digitise and automate, but it makes citizen services easier to access, understand and navigate.

Can Denmark learn lessons from the UK?

The UK is more advanced in certain areas of government digital transformation. For example, cloud hosting is now the default across UK government services, while much of Denmark’s cloud journey is still to come.

Also, Denmark has not prioritised building internal digital delivery capability as much as the UK, with about 70% of delivery outsourced. Danish officials believe this approach increases delivery accountability since delivery reports highlight failing programmes and allow the media to scrutinise.

Suppliers are therefore strongly incentivised to take delivery commitments seriously. But this can result in the government having less ownership of technical decision-making.

Start small to catalyse change

Implementing many of these lessons would require big, complex societal changes that could take decades. And some (for example, the single identifier) may never be palatable to the UK’s libertarian-leaning society.

But not all hope is lost. Programme leaders can determine which data is critical to link up and deliver key insights. More focus can be placed on sharing platforms across organisations to accelerate delivery and make policy a priority. Legislation can be simplified and a commitment to going paperless is achievable. With this changes, the promised land might be within our grasp.

By Helen Mott, Principal at Netcompany