Lessons from a pioneer in government digital transformation
Portrait photography: Ulrike Frömel. Other images: Getty
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Lessons from a pioneer in government digital transformation

Rae Ritchie — April 2020

Finland’s ambitious digitalization agenda has made it one the world’s top digital nations. Maria Nikkilä, from the country’s Ministry of Finance, outlines how it has accelerated the move towards citizen-centric digital services.

Like government technology leaders everywhere, Maria Nikkilä, head of the digitalization unit at Finland’s Ministry of Finance, is wrestling with a tricky dilemma: “How can we provide cost-effective public services, while at the same time provide the better services people now expect?”

The answer, she argues, lies in the digital transformation of an array of public services that reach deep into the lives of Finns.

“Finland is a welfare state [with] very high-quality services. But we are struggling with the problems of an aging population — fewer young people; more and more older people — so the costs of the welfare and health systems are increasing all the time,” she outlines.

In an effort to tackle that in recent years, the Finnish government has invested €100 million ($110m) in digitalization programs, with another €40 million ($44m) of further spending planned. In her role, Nikkilä has seen firsthand this digital journey unfold and is keen to share her insights to date — and where the government plans to take digitalization from here.
Start with digital citizensFinland scores consistently high in analyst reviews of digital economies: IMD Business School’s 2019 World Digital Competitiveness Ranking, for example, puts the country of just 5.5 million people, as seventh worldwide. That shows in the fact that more than 75% of its population is classed as having basic digital skills, compared to an average of 57% across the EU as a whole. And that provides the government with a solid foundation for participation in digital transformation.


“Ministry of Finance, Finland=
Ministry of Finance, Finland

Another factor in the pace of Finnish digital strategy, according to Nikkilä, is trust. “We have high trust from citizens towards government services, including digital services. That’s one reason people use them so much and are willing to try new technologies.”

Nikkilä cites statistics to back up her claim: 92% of internet users in Finland now access the government’s digital services — a figure 30% higher than elsewhere in the EU.
Learn from – and work – with other governments

The Finnish government has not undertaken digitalization in complete isolation. Rather, its digital program is characterized by collaboration with neighboring states. The X-Road network that forms the backbone of its digital services, for example, was created in Estonia, itself a digital pioneer.

Crucially, X-Road allows the linking of multiple layers of public and private data, says Nikkilä. “We have combined the base registers, government services, municipality services and even some private-sector services,” she explains.

“If you need any basic information about the services, if you’re a citizen or a service provider, you can find it one place.”

“The idea is that the citizen can find all services and information in one place,” says Nikkilä. “We have a Finnish service catalog, which is where all public-sector services are described in the same way. So if you need any basic information about the services, if you’re a citizen or a service provider, you can find it one place.”
Don’t be afraid to do things differently

While working with others has accelerated the pace of digital transformation, the Finnish government has also needed to be proactive. “We have used lots of legislation to move things forward,” says Nikkilä. And while she jokes that this might not sit well with the traditional attitude of many Finns that ‘the government can’t make us do anything,’ over the past few years “everybody now recognizes that digital services will be the future.”

“We need the data [available] in certain ways to use it to build AI for public government.”

This viewpoint will only become more established as digitalization evolves. She points to an upcoming data management act designed to reform and harmonize information management of public administration. “We recognize that data is becoming more and more important and we have ambitious plans,” says Nikkilä. In particular, she adds: “We need the data [available] in certain ways to use it to build AI for public government.”
Make human-centric systems

Such proactive moves, however, are not divorced from the individual citizen’s needs and concerns. Nikkilä is clear about the importance of digitalization being distinctly human-centric. “Looking at the services we’ve built, [humans are] at the center of them,” she says. “We are looking for services that benefit people.”

The Finnish government has integrated an e-authorisation service into its system that is adaptable to citizens’ needs. This means that, as well as accessing their own services, users can be granted the authority to act on behalf of someone else. Nikkilä uses an example from her own life: “For several services, I can act on behalf of my children, viewing their information in the healthcare database. All the pharmacies in Finland now use this system, so I can go into any of them, show my identification and collect medicines for my children.”
Be prepared for unforeseen challenges

New systems can generate fresh problems, though. All of the services, for example, whether government or local, use a single e-identification solution for login that is based on an individual’s social security number.

That use of a traditional unique identifier may make the process straightforward for citizens but it has also exposed an inherent flaw. The social security code contains both date of birth and gender, which unnecessarily “gives away too much information,” observes Nikkilä.

As a result, the government is exploring how to change personal identity numbers to make them both secure and more private.
Accept the need to adaptAs in most countries, digitalization has changed the basis of the tax system — but that has been taken to a new level in Finland. “We have automated all the information for organizations to pay the salaries and tax for their employees. And citizens have a My Tax service where they can see all their taxes but they don’t have to do anything unless they have some corrections. It has made it very, very easy.”

However, the emergence of new digitally enabled sources of income is creating challenges that the taxation system will have to accommodate. “We have to deal with new ways of earning, such as renting your apartment through Airbnb or using your car to be a service provider,” says Nikkilä.
Continue to strive

Despite enormous progress with its digital strategy, the Finnish government remains ambitious. Perhaps most notably, the government has big plans for the application of artificial intelligence (AI). Named after the northern lights for which Scandinavia is famous, the AuroraAI program reflects a desire “to be the forerunner in information policy and artificial intelligence,” says Nikkilä.

“We are changing from simply using technology to provide efficient administration to a people-oriented, proactive way of combining services.” 

“The idea is that we combine public and private services in a citizen-centric way. We choose life events, such as moving to Finland or preventing the social exclusion of teenagers, and then we combine services from different providers, including the government, municipalities and some private companies, using AI to improve these services.”

By removing the silos that usually keep services separated, AuroraAI will create a seamless system for users, reducing the time spent on administration and bureaucracy during moments of change, such as starting a new job. It will also create more opportunities for co-operation between the public sector, private sector and the third sector.


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Finland’s AuroraAI: Citizen-centric

The program has important benefits for the Finnish authorities too. The snapshots of people’s needs that AuroraAI will generate will allow the government to better understand — and therefore solve — difficult social issues such as the problems facing the aging population or the social exclusion of young people.

AuroraAI launched in February 2020 and goals for the first year of the program include developing the first version of the operating model and releasing a beta version for use by both individuals and organizations.

All of this represents a major and historical shift in the Finnish government’s approach to public services, says Nikkilä. “We are changing from [simply] using technology to provide efficient administration to a people-oriented, proactive way of combining services.”

• Maria Nikkilä was speaking at Fujitsu Forum Munich 2019 – see highlights and presentations here.

First published April 2020
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