Digital agenda streamlines public sector in Norway

While governments are eager to toot the horn of digitisation, real-world effects are still a few and far between, but Norway is aiming to change this

Governments are eager to talk up digitisation but, unless you live in Estonia, real-world effects are still a few and far between. Norway aims to change this with an extensive ICT policy: Digital Agenda Norway (DAN).

According to state secretary to the minister of local government and modernisation Paul Chaffey, the Norwegian government is a strong believer in using ICT as a driver for innovation, growth and the modernisation of the public sector.

"We believe that a national strategy such as DAN will help release the potential of ICT for the good of Norwegian society,” he said.

First presented to the Norwegian parliament as a white paper in March 2013, Digital Agenda Norway encompasses a variety of initiatives from digitally competent citizens to cyber attack response teams and improved cross-border digital commerce.

As the name implies, DAN is inspired by the Digital Agenda for Europe framework but is tailored for Norway’s own priorities and challenges, including a small domestic market and a sparsely populated country. It is also a continuation of earlier ICT policies such as the eNorway program introduced in 2000.

This long-term approach is starting to bear fruit. Almost 60% of Norwegians are eGovernment users, while the corresponding EU average is 33%. In the Norwegian Tax Administration alone the country’s "digital by default" scheme has pushed the number of electronic services users from less than 900,000 in 2014 to 3.4 million in 2015. Not bad for a country with a population of 5.1 million.

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Digital by default is one the main areas of DAN and promotes digital communication as the general rule of communication between citizens, businesses and the public sector. Electronic tax cards, IDs and invoices, as well as digital forms and online services written in user-friendly language, are all part of the scheme.

The introduction of the public reporting platform Altinn has cut the time businesses spend on tax and other official forms as well. First introduced back in 2003, Altinn has been through numerous iterations and now connects directly with most accounting systems and acts as a collaboration tool between authorities, accountants and businesses. 

In addition, 95% of the adult population has registered to the service and use it to submit digital forms such as tax returns, driving licences and even choosing baby names. Keeping with the times, Altinn also comes as a mobile app.

Furthermore, Norway claims to be the only country that has developed an electronic public records collaborative tool which both individuals and business can use to search for public documents online.

Digital challenges remain

While the digital agenda is making welcome advances in the public sector, wider challenges still remain.

According to Targe Bjorgum, head of ICT policies at Abelia (the trade and employer association representing IT and telecommunication sectors), while the government has succeeded in formulating a policy crossing ministerial and sectoral boundaries, this hasn’t yet translated into broader action.

“The promising words in the white paper are rarely followed up with action points that challenge sectoral policies between ministries or between state and municipality,” he said. “The intention is good, but the execution is below what we'd expected. Technological innovation is still living outside the main political issues.”

This could change in the future. Norway is part of the digital single market in Europe project promoting cross-border digital business and innovation. Policymakers also acknowledge the fast-moving nature of the ICT sector and a revised digital agenda is already underway.

“We need to constantly monitor developments and adjust goals and actions accordingly. We are now starting to work on a revised version of DAN,” said Chaffey. “The revised white paper will be presented to the parliament some time during the first six months of 2016.”

For a small country on the outskirts of Europe, being at the frontline of digitisation isn’t an option, it is a necessity.

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