Nordic CIO interview: Stefan Olowsson, Swedish Social Insurance Agency

Stefan Olowsson, CIO at Sweden’s Försäkringskassan, helps to ensure social security payments run smoothly, which is a balancing act of innovation, data security and reliable delivery

Sweden’s Social Insurance Agency, Försäkringskassan, distributes SEK200bn (£16bn) worth of benefit payments each year, which is roughly 6% of the country’s GDP. More importantly, the agency’s work impacts almost every Swede in one way or another.

For Stefan Olowsson, Försäkringskassan’s CIO, this offers a unique challenge. “If people don’t get paid, they won’t have money for food,” he says. “If my production stops and the money doesn’t flow, it will take 20 minutes for the newspapers to start calling.”

Olowsson runs a sizeable IT organisation and does everything in-house to make sure it runs smoothly. His department has 1,100 employees – about 700 in development and 400 in production – 10,000 servers and a partner network of around 200 consultants.

IT is a core part of the agency’s operations. Development has been divided into five silos according to its five business areas, and developers are physically located in their relevant business areas to encourage collaboration. Olowsson also has a group of 12 people who act as a bridge between different IT teams to distribute information.

This structure reflects Olowsson’s focus on development and innovation. Försäkringskassan spends SEK100m (£8.4m) a year to maintain its IT operations, while it allocates SEK800m to development.  

“It is rare to have that [budget] ratio in a public organisation,” he says. “We have worked very hard in the past 10 years to keep it as it is. We need to develop and get rid of old systems and keep maintenance at a low level.”

Olowsson’s approach stems from the private sector. He has spent most of his 40-year career in management positions at large private companies. These include technology and consulting services firm Capgemini, IT services company EDS and sourcing consultancy TPI. He was a partner at TPI when Försäkringskassan came calling.

“They asked if I could help them not with outsourcing, but with problems in their IT department,” he says. “I was there for eight months and helped to set up their IT. Then they asked, ‘Could you stay?’ and I said OK. That was 10 years ago.”

“CIOs who just sit in the office and manage IT departments – they are dead. The new CIOs must go out and talk about possibilities and new ways of doing things using new technologies and IT. If not us, then who else will do it?”

Stefan Olowsson, Försäkringskassan

For Olowsson, the jump to the public sector was a chance to have an impact on people’s everyday lives. Social insurance might not have a great ring to it, but it is a cornerstone of Sweden’s welfare society.

But the importance of Försäkringskassan’s work also brings challenges. The agency handles large amounts of personal information and health records each day. Because of the sensitivity of this data, the organisation has limited its use of cloud-based services to a few basic functions, such as firewalls.

This has also driven the agency’s decision not to outsource, and it is not alone in this respect. The Swedish government tightened the reins on all public sector outsourcing after a 2017 scandal at the Swedish Transport Agency saw sensitive personal data exposed to foreign IT workers. The scandal also had an unexpected impact on Försäkringskassan’s IT.

“Instead of outsourcing, the government has told other state organisations to first check with us if we can run their IT production at our site,” says Olowsson. “Today we have six to eight other government agencies on our production site. We are more or less an internal sourcing supplier.”

So far, this has not caused much strain because Försäkringskassan’s current “clients” are small. They require 10 to 20 servers each, compared with the 10,000 run by the agency – but this might change in future. According to Olowsson, there is already a queue of 65 organisations waiting to tap into Försäkringskassan’s server capacity.

Read more Nordic CIO interviews

Försäkringskassan’s new role could lead to growing recruitment needs, but this doesn’t worry Olowsson. When he was named Sweden’s CIO of the Year in 2019, one of the things the jury highlighted was his success in creating an attractive IT employer. He credits this to the importance of Försäkringskassan’s work as well as its IT department’s strong focus on new technologies and employee development.

“You have to work hard on developing competence,” says Olowsson. “I have a rule that everyone needs to have at least 80 hours of training every year.”

Experimenting with AI

When it comes to new technologies, Försäkringskassan has experimented, in particular, with artificial intelligence (AI). Olowsson started with relatively simple features, such as speech to text and image recognition. For example, the agency’s processing of dental health claims is now almost entirely automated. Patients can get a quick decision on how much they will be reimbursed for different treatments as long as they can submit a valid dental X-ray.

“AI can be used to check, for example, that the X-ray isn’t the same as a previously submitted X-ray just with a different patient name,” says Olowsson.

Later this year, Olowsson hopes to roll out an AI application for processing sick leave claims. The process is complicated by the wide variety of cases that Försäkringskassan receives and the sensitivity of the related health data. Olowsson has enlisted five doctors to help teach the AI how to interpret doctors’ notes and suggest an appropriate length of sick leave and sick pay for specific kinds of illness. He believes this could make the claim process not just more efficient, but fairer.

“We have 14,000 people all over Sweden making these decisions,” says Olowsson. “The question is, do patients get the same amount of sick leave in northern and southern Sweden? Every case handler is pretty much on their own if they can’t get help from AI that can say, ‘Normally, this would be three to four weeks’.”

Rise of a salesman

Due to its complexities, the agency’s development of an AI application is just at the first stage. Försäkringskassan has tested many AI applications successfully in a lab environment, but getting them into production has proved a challenge.

“We have a big organisation and AI applications aren’t the easiest to implement, even in a small organisation,” says Olowsson. “Some people are afraid that computers will start to make decisions for them, even if we say, ‘No, no – they are just giving you examples or possibilities’. This is one of the barriers to implementing AI.”

But developments like this are also where Olowsson sees the role of a modern CIO. After seeing many innovations fail because an organisation’s business side hasn’t understood them or known how to implement them, he has rebranded himself as a “salesman” for new ways of doing things.

“CIOs who just sit in the office and manage IT departments – they are dead,” he says. “The new CIOs must go out and talk about possibilities and new ways of doing things using new technologies and IT. If not us, then who else will do it?”

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