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Nordic CIO interview: Åsa Melvanius, Lund municipality

For Åsa Melvanius, CDO at the Swedish municipality of Lund, created a “robot factory” that has saved the city more than 6,500 hours by automating routine processes

Two years ago, Lund, a Swedish municipality of 116,000 inhabitants, started a major shift to digitisation. As part of the process, the city replaced its former chief information officer (CIO) position with a new chief digital officer (CDO) role.

Åsa Melvanius took up the digital role in 2018. “CIO tasks are still my responsibility, but I now have the primary role of driving digital transformation in the city,” she says. “This wasn’t as clear when it was more a traditional CIO role.”

She added that the responsibility was one of the things that attracted her to the position.

The new title kicked off Lund’s IT revamp. In the past two years, Melvanius has introduced multiple changes across the municipality, which focus on increased collaboration and tightly integrating IT with business development.

But the greatest impact on everyday work has come from automation. One of Melvanius’s first projects was to identify routine and mundane processes across the municipality, which it could automate through robotic process automation. To date, Lund has successfully automated 25 processes with 20 more in the pipeline.

“When you look at our KPIs [key performance indicators], we have so far handled almost 65,000 tasks and saved 6,500 work hours internally,” says Melvanius.

“We have also removed 1.3 million manual tasks from our staff, such as logging into a system or copying something over.” 

Seeing the big picture

The public sector is still a relatively new area for Melvanius. Prior to Lund, she worked at IT consultancy Capgemini for 17 years. But when she was asked to switch sectors, the decision came easily.

“What is interesting in the public sector is that you get really close to everyday problems, and being able to solve them has an impact on people’s lives,” says Melvanius. “It’s both rewarding and challenging.”

The Lund municipality runs a decentralised IT model where each of its 11 administrative departments manage their own systems. This leaves the city’s 50-strong IT team to handle the big picture challenges, run shared systems and assist in IT issues across the municipality.

“A lot of good work had been done with processes and governance before I joined,” says Melvanius. “But I met an organisation with self-doubt when it came to digitisation.”

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To address this, Melvanius introduced a new collaboration model. At the core of the model are “strategic digitisation forums”.

In practice, one of each department’s management meetings is turned into a digitisation meeting with a focus on long-term business plans and IT roadmaps. It has helped Lund to identify over 500 digital initiatives across its departments.

“We also established a digitisation council where every department has a representative from senior management,” says Melvanius. “This is to make sure that we also collaborate in the city because we have a pretty decentralised organisation.

“It is also our way of making sure we don’t invest in, for example, three different e-signing systems.”

Robots to the rescue

Two major challenges faced Lund when Melvanius arrived: an ageing population, which increased costs and time pressures, and an ever-growing amount of administrative work. She says the public sector’s administrative burden has grown 90% in the past 30 years. This is where her automation initiatives really paid off.

“We started the public tender process [for an RPA platform] at the same time we did an inventory of our different processes,” says Melvanius. “I said we should be able to find 100 processes to automate, but in less than two months we had almost 200.”

Based on these numbers, starting small was not an option. Rather than start with a few processes and work up, she started by building Lund a “robot factory” with the potential to handle hundreds of processes across the municipality straight away.

Melvanius likens RPA to duct tape. It’s a quick fix but also a compelling one long-term, especially when it’s part of a larger automation strategy. For Lund, the first option is to automate using the city’s existing systems, but legacy systems make that a challenge.

“Our second choice is to use ‘real integration’, such as APIs, but that is expensive and time-consuming,” says Melvanius. “Our third choice is RPA. So there is a big space for an RPA platform in an organisation like ours.”

Legislative challenge

Melvanius was initially worried about the reaction of Lund employees to the idea of robot workers. The municipality employs about 12,000 people across its different functions and the term “automation” often triggers resistance in employees concerned about their futures, but reactions have been largely positive.

“We still need all the people we can get,” she says. “But we need our employees to be able to focus on the right things and for the robots to do the rest. These are tasks a lot of our employees don’t even like to do.”

Employing robots is not without issue, and one challenge stems from legislation. In Swedish law, it’s debatable whether a robot can make decisions. The consequence for Lund is that its employees must still make the final decisions, though they use software robots to gather the necessary information to do so.

There is one exception: elderly residents have the option to receive a safety wristband from the municipality which alerts help at the push of a button. Since practically everyone who applies for the wristband receives one, it was an easy process to automate.

“In this process, the robot makes the decision, so here we are challenging the legislation a bit,” says Melvanius. “It was an active decision from our politicians. They took that position and I think they were brave to do so.”

For anyone considering RPA, Melvanius has a few words of advice. First, collaborate with others where possible. For example, Lund procured its RPA platform jointly with the neighbouring city Malmö.

Second, go big: “If you only try one or two processes, you don’t have the muscle to maintain and develop the system,” she says. “Then set very clear goals and KPIs. It has been a big part of our success because we can very clearly visualise the impact of what we are doing.”

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