We had the chance to have a chat with Morten Meyerhoff Nielsen about Denmark’s approach to online service design and the citizen portal Borger.dk. We were eager to hear how the Danish authorities have built the portal, how did the citizens react to it, and finally what are the DOs and DON’Ts of e-services.
Meyerhoff Nielsen has worked with e-governments since 2003, initially at European Institution of Public Administration (EIPA) as a researcher. He then moved back to Denmark to work for the Danish Technological Institute as a consultant. After that he has worked for Danish government at National IT and Telecom Agency and at the Danish Agency for Digitalization as the Head of Section. Currently he resides in Estonia, working with e-voting and pursuing a Ph. D on ICT related governance and cooperation models at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Technology at the Tallinn University of Technology. In addition he works as a consultant at democrati.se, and is currently advising the governments of the Republic of Macedonia and Faroe Islands on interoperability, online service design and eGovernment strategy issues.
When working for the Danish government, Meyerhoff Nielsen was responsible for the usability guidelines for Danish government e-services. Basically, these guidelines define the design principles and minimal usability requirements for online services, including such things as language, design and functionality. In relation to Borger.dk and other Danish government sites, a secure login opening the door to all government websites, deep links between different sites and the portal, and reusing data that has already been given (“only once” principle) are examples of the portal’s highly appreciated features. According to Meyerhoff Nielsen, these Danish guidelines are similar to other countries design principles, including those in Norway and the UK’s national portal Gov.uk. A unique feature of the Danish guidelines is the inclusion of measurable accept criteria that give a certain minimum standard against which a newly developed e-service can be tested.
–Before launch, it is very important to do proper user testing. This allows to optimize the design and functionalities before launching it. The importance of testing is even greater in the case of mandatory usage, such as governmental e-services, Meyerhoff Nielsen reminds us.
Border.dk, the Danish citizen portal, was launched in connection with Denmark’s E-Government strategy 2007-2010. Both the portal and the strategy are joint, cross-governmental efforts: all three levels of government are part of it. The budget of the portal is from national budget, but is actually made of three parts: 40 % from local governments, 20 % from regional governments and 40 % from the central government. Compared to citizen portals in other countries, this and the joint governmental board is one of the unique features which have helped ensure the success of Borger.dk, Meyerhoff Nielsen claims.
– These two have an interesting impact. Firstly, all levels of government sit on the board and decide together which strategic direction and functions the portal takes. Second, even if a ministry or a municipality do not optimize their co-operation with the portal infrastructure and knowledge, they are still paying part of it. Having a say creates a sense of ownership and direction.
Meyerhoff Nielsen makes an interesting comparison. He likens these kinds of portals to shopping malls. The building, escalators and all of the infrastructure is provided by the portal. The individual authorities are the shop owners who put their goods and services on the shelves. From that shopping mall (or in this case portal) you can find everything.
– And the ‘everything’ is the key here. If the citizen cannot find everything he or she needs, it is not a one stop shop and not an attractive service. The citizen won’t use it again.
That is also the reason why all Danish authorities are obliged to integrate their services into the portal. All e-government services for Danish citizens must be found from the citizen portal, and for businesses from the business portal.
In 2014 the portal had over 15 million unique visitors, which would be equivalent to every Dane using the portal three times per year. Today, over 90 % of Danes have an active digital signature, called NemID, mainly because it is used not only for governmental services but also for online banking services. According to Meyerhoff Nielsen, this should be Finland’s path too. The same goes for the citizen’s online mail box, Digital Post. It was made mandatory for all citizens, and one had to ask for a permission for not using it. Only 10.8 % have asked for such exemption in Denmark.
– In Denmark we changed the model! Instead of an active opt-in, it is an active opt-out. Everyone is by default given a digital ID and signature, everyone is automatically given a Digital Post Box. The fact is that people seldom change their behavior unless they have to, Meyerhoff Nielsen tells us.
This year, 6–8 million digital letters are sent every month in Denmark. This is possible as 90+ percent of households opt to buy internet access for home use, and 90+ percent use the internet at least once a week. In Finland the figures are quite the same than in Denmark: most of us have the access to internet at home and most of us use it daily.
– Thus there must be some other reason why the Finns are not using government’s services online, he claims.
Denmark has set an 80 % goal for digital service usage. For a number of service areas this goal has been achieved. For example, in spring 2014 88 % of all address changes in Denmark were made online, 93 % of all applied for an EU health card online, 98 % of all kids were registered for primary school online. In addition almost 100 % of tax returns, applications for university, student grants and loans are done online. This has been done through active promotion of e-services, and making it mandatory for those who can and who have access to the internet to do so for certain high-frequency, high-volume service areas (that is those services most of us use relatively often).
The vast majority of Danes have thus adapted to doing the most common business with the public administration online. However, there have been some unexpected problems with some user groups. Younger Danes seem to lack the civic skills required for one to fully grasp the responsibilities one has towards the government and vice versa. The lack of civic skills has led to problems when they have had to search for additional information or when they are required to fill out an extra form.
– Normally, when we think about weak IT skills and e-services, we think about senior citizens. This is actually less and less of a problem now. And whatever seniors lack in IT skills, they make up with an understanding of what government is all about, Meyerhoff Nielsen says.
– The youth, on the other hand, don’t necessarily understand this. Why do I have to fill out a tax form? What is tax? The youth might be digital natives, but they don’t always understand what government is about.
This, according to Meyerhoff Nielsen, is where it all comes back to language. In order to make digital public services accessible to all, you must make the language clear and understandable for all users: free from legal references and bureaucratical jargon. Otherwise people will not understand and, subsequently, require assistance. Taking care of accessibility and user-friendliness should be integrated deeply into the planning process of any governmental e-service, Meyerhoff Nielsen says.
– It’s like building a house. If you take into account different aspects during the building process, it is much easier and cheaper to make changes. But if the house, or in this case the portal, is done and published, and then you realize factors such as accessibility and usability are missing, it becomes very costly to fix them.
The digitalization of Denmark’s public services has so far been a success. So are there any major do’s or lessons we Finns should learn from the Danes?
– First, you need to look at things holistically and include the governmental, citizen and business actors in the process. Second, you must look at your services from the user’s point of view, set some minimum requirements and have lots of user-testing. And third, you have to constantly monitor where you are in the digitalization process and how you are progressing, Meyerhoff Nielsen tells us.
– And don’t forget about the back end, he continues.
– You need to think about processes and organizational change before you digitize. This is also an area where Denmark needs to do a lot better. And do not think you are in a unique situation as an authority and can do everything on your own. You’re not, and citizens don’t necessarily care or understand. So the “we are special” kind of a mindset is just going to make things difficult for everyone including your own organization and the citizens you try to service.