Neighbour with similar challenges

The annual Almedalen Week in Visby, Sweden, is said to be the world's biggest democratic meeting place for discussing social issues. This year, the number of seminars and events arranged during the week was almost 3,600. The programme of the week covered a large number of different subjects, but the trendiest topics were related to digitalisation, artificial intelligence (AI), sustainability, and climate questions.

A common theme in the debates about digitalisation, AI and automation was the slowdown in the pace of digitalisation in Sweden – particularly in the public sector – and, in contrast, the acceleration of the pace in countries such as Estonia and Finland. Estonia’s national X-Road-based Data Exchange Layer has been arousing interest in Sweden for a long time. It appeared that Swedes also follow the development in Finland and the platform as well as the operations of the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS).

Anders Ygeman, the Swedish Minister for Energy and Digitalisation, pointed out in a debate that Sweden is ranked second out of the 28 EU member states in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) and is among the top three in all global digital rankings. There is thus no doubt that Sweden is among the absolute top worldwide. However, there are also problems, which even the recently appointed Minister for Digitalisation admitted. A recurring problem is that different authorities, as well as municipalities and county councils, develop their own solutions, as a result of which data transmission operates defectively, and information must be searched for several times from different sources.

It became clear from many panel discussions that it is mainly legal obstacles and the Swedish governance model with a large number of independent authorities that put spokes in the wheel when data and information should be shared. As the Swedish legislation was drafted in a completely different reality and the digital evolution is extremely dynamic, there are bound to be conflicts.  The technological development and automation of key processes require that the administrative structures must be changed in Sweden, too. Instead of silos, a horizontal approach is needed.

To sum up, the challenges and problems related to the introduction of digital solutions in the Swedish public sector are in many respects similar to those in Finland. The data analytics seminar recently arranged at the NAOF included a presentation on the Finnish Tietokiri project. One of the aims of the project is to gather together central government’s shared information resources. This work has faced legislative obstacles, which have taken time and required lots of actions. The term Swedes use when criticising vertical administrative structures is “stuprör” (direct translation: “drainpipe”), whereas Finns talk about silos in connection with the development of the public sector. Although the terms are different, the phenomenon is the same on both sides of the Gulf of Bothnia!

The discussions highlighted the challenges posed by the introduction of digital solutions, but how can the problems be solved and what can we learn from them? Swedes now set high expectations for the new Agency for Digital Government DIGG, which started its operations in September 2018. The agency’s duty is to coordinate and support the public sector in digital challenges. The development path our neighbour has taken is ambitious, and it will be interesting for the public sector in Finland to follow the progress in Sweden.