Nordic-Baltic Conference on Digital Government

On 26 November 2020, the Agency for Digitisation hosted a conference as a conclusion of the Danish presidency of MR-DIGITAL (Nordic Council of Ministers for Digitalisation).

The conference took its point of departure in the goals of the Digital North 2.0 ministerial declaration, approved by Nordic-Baltic ministers on 8 October 2020.

Experts from the Nordic-Baltic countries discussed ethics, public trust, and innovation in relation to some of the most important topics regarding digital government in the region:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and data,
  • GovTech,
  • Data exchange and digital public services,
  • The digital green transition.

Read the summaries of the panel discussions and presentation as well as the keynote speech by former Director-General Rikke Hougaard Zeberg below.

The Five Sessions of the Conference

Rikke Hougaard Zeberg’s keynote speech revolved around the benefits of a digital public sector and the active choice to base it on the needs and expectations of citizens and businesses, not a bureaucratic logic.

In the Nordic-Baltic region, that active choice has meant that the public sector is now closer to citizens and businesses than ever before. We have built excellent digital service infrastructures focused on users’ needs, and in doing so, we have made our public sectors convenient and easy.

Zeberg stressed that public authorities have a duty to ensure that public digital services are transparent and held to the highest standards. Studies show that transparency and security are important in maintaining high levels of trust in the public sector because people want to know how public authorities use their data.

Trust is also important in relation to new technologies, such as AI and 5G. Zeberg emphasised that we must make sure that we use the new opportunities in an ethical and sustainable manner. The new technology we adopt must support our open, democratic welfare states, so our unique values and our planet are preserved for future generations.

The first panel discussion addressed challenges and benefits associated with AI and data, especially in relation to accountability, public trust, and ethics. The panel comprised:

  • Rikke Hvilshøj, CEO of the Danish IT Society, member of the Data Ethics Council of Denmark, and former Danish minister,
  • Stephen Alstrup, Professor of Algorithms and Complexity at the University of Copenhagen,
  • Ivan Brandslund, Clinical Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Southern Denmark.

Ethical Uses of AI

The panellists agreed that it would be unethical not to use AI and data in the public sector to create better societies. AI and data offer a vast number and variety of applications, from diagnosing illnesses more precisely to preventing tax evasion.

Brandslund exemplified the power of AI in a study conducted by Danish hospitals that had shown that AI was superior to all other statistical tools in predicting the outcome of illness in patients. Alstrup applauded this example of AI and believed that it emphasises the importance of people having the freedom and opportunity to let the government use their data for the greater good.

Regarding the ethics of AI usage, Alstrup emphasised that context and purpose of data handling are important, especially when different datasets are combined. Smart meters exemplify the importance of this: the data collected can be powerful in matching energy production and demand in order to lower carbon emissions. However, although it is possible, it would be unethical to use the data to combat welfare fraud because it is not the intention of the collection of energy data.

Unethical and Illegal Uses of AI

The panellists agreed that public trust in AI is challenged by examples of unethical or illegal uses of data, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018.

Brandslund pointed out that the abovementioned study was conducted using data already held by the hospitals, minimising the risk of illegal uses of data. However, the risk of data leaks and misuse inherently increase through centralised distributed personal data, meaning that the secure flow of data must be a priority.

Alstrup pointed out that regulation is important but not sufficient to prevent abuse of data in AI: awareness and education for politicians, citizens, and businesses are necessary to ensure data security and quality.

Hvilshøj agreed and emphasised that AI should be democratic by design, pointing to the example of New Zealand, where AI must be explainable. It is a crucial precondition for public trust in AI solutions that understanding AI and its applications becomes a general, basic skill in society.

Biases in Datasets

As the final topic of the debate, panellists discussed bias in datasets. The panellists agreed that in relation to systemic biases, AI is both a blessing and a curse. Hvilshøj pointed out that AI makes it easier than ever to reveal biases. However, if used improperly, AI can repeat historic biases, so it is an important issue when merging datasets.

The panellists believed that biases can also be prevented by letting AI support human decision-making and not be the primary basis for a decision.

The second panel discussion explored GovTech and how we can use public procurement to build innovative solutions for the public sector. The panel comprised:

  • Ida Laustsen, Norwegian National Programme for Supplier Development,
  • Ronnie Eriksson, Managing Consultant, PA Consulting.

Eriksson presented the GovTech study conducted by PA Consulting in 2020 on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers. One of the primary findings of the study was that all Nordic-Baltic countries experiment with GovTech.

Despite the focus on GovTech in the Nordic-Baltic countries, the study has found that organisational culture and habits mean that old, more familiar procurement practices are still the most prevalent in government institutions. As such, institutional culture as well as rigid organisations are key barriers to more innovative procurement procedures. The study has highlighted that possible solutions to changing the culture within organisations include building greater awareness of the potentials of GovTech as well as creating a better and bigger marketplace, for instance by municipalities cooperating on procurement.

Laustsen presented the Norwegian Programme for Supplier Development (Leverandørutviklingsprogrammet), established in 2010, which has overseen more than 200 innovative procurement processes.

Procurement Culture and Habits – and the Risk Paradox

According to Laustsen, one of the biggest problems of traditional procurement practices for the public sector is that it lacks an assessment of needs and a market dialogue prior to procurement. That means that the public sector does not benefit from the full competences in the market as well as new available solutions. In innovative procurement, requesting a pre-defined solution from the market is discouraged, focusing instead on needs and functions which the market can in turn respond on how best to solve.

Both panellists agreed that risk is one of the paradoxes of procurement. Risk averseness is one of the drivers of traditional procurement practices, particularly in IT. There is a tendency to believe that one procurement process can provide solutions to many different problems, when it is in fact desirable to break up projects to reduce project risks. Indeed, risk averseness is counter-productive because risks are not eliminated by conducting larger projects and using traditional procurement practices because they increase the potential for costly mistakes.

Eriksson pointed out that GovTech attempts to replace decades of traditional procurement practices. To succeed, it is necessary to build a culture of innovation with strong leadership focus. To encourage this, there is a need for better cooperation and coordination across countries, for instance by sharing procurement processes. Eriksson highlighted the Nordic-Baltic forum as an excellent opportunity for sharing best practices but also lessons learnt from failed projects.

Many countries currently work on ambitious data exchange programmes to improve public digital services to citizens. The third panel discussion revolved around data-sharing between citizens and authorities, and between authorities themselves, using national digital service infrastructures. The panel comprised:

  • Nicolai Mohr Balle, director of the Faroese Digitisation Programme,
  • Katrine Krzeminski, coordinator of the Danish My Overview programme.

Balle presented the digital service infrastructure launched in the Faroe Islands in 2020 under the Faroese Digitisation Programme (Talgildu Føroyar). The infrastructure encompasses a data exchange platform based on X-Road, a national eID, and a citizens’ portal. X-Road is used to to exchange data directly between authorities in a secure and standardised way, meaning that individual public authorities retain most data.

Krzeminski presented the Danish My Overview programme (Mit Overblik), whose ambition is to provide citizens with an overview of what personal data public authorities are handling about them. One of the main challenges in establishing this overview is that the Danish architectural landscape is a patchwork of many different, complex data models and systems, some of which are very old. The solution to this challenge is an ‘orchestration component’ which can bring heterogeneous data from different authorities together and show it side by side in a way which is meaningful to citizens.

Data Exchange and Trust

One of the key discussions of the session was how the public sector can ensure citizens’ trust in digital public services when data is exchanged in realtime between authorities. The panellists believed that a high level of public trust hinges on secure data exchange, which is something that both the Faroese and Danish governments have prioritised as public administration has moved from paper to the digital sphere.

To maintain and increase public trust in future, both the Faroese and Danish governments plan to increase transparency by making it easier for citizens to see what data about them the public sector stores. Both governments are also considering implementing a log of authorities’ data use, although preliminary studies suggest that many citizens might find such logs overwhelming rather than a means for engendering trust.

A consortium headed by Danish think tank Mandag Morgen is conducting a study of the digital green transition in the Nordic-Baltic public sectors. The presenters were:

  • Christian Ingemann, project director, Mandag Morgen,
  • Morten Jastrup, managing partner of Nordic Sustainability.

Expected in April 2021, the study will provide recommendations to MR-DIGITAL on how the public sectors can encourage and speed up the green transition in the region through the increased use of data and existing and emerging digital technologies.

The preliminary results of the study show that in the identified stakeholder and expert community, there is a strong conviction that data and digital tools can be useful instruments in reducing emissions across the energy, transport, buildings, and agricultural sectors. In particular, IoT and sensors as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence are seen as promising technologies.

The study has mapped green and digital initiatives across the Nordic-Baltic region. Although most countries have ambitious digital and green policies, the green and digital transformations are rarely linked in national strategies. Additionally, there is a significant gap between national initiatives and policies and their implementation at the local level.

The final study will comprise a number of operational policy recommendations for the Nordic-Baltic countries to accelerate the digital green transition.

Once the final study has been published, a link to the report will be posted on this page as well as on the main page.