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Online, not in line

Waiting weeks to be issued some crucial document? Not in Copenhagen, where citizens can do most of their own paperwork – from applying for a pension to making a doctor’s appointment

She no longer needs people to help her: Stine Kromann-Larsen reaches a terminal
She no longer needs people to help her: Stine Kromann-Larsen reaches a terminal

• On a Tuesday morning in May, during one of the busiest times for Denmark’s largest Borgerservice or citizens’ service centre, on Copenhagen’s Nyropsgade, there are few seats available. This is not because they are all occupied but because they are simply no longer necessary: no one needs to sit down for long. People with an appointment are called two minutes early on average. Those without an appointment can book one here – this morning, the next free slot is in an hour. But most people have already booked from their computer at home.

The queue at this time of day would once have stretched around the building. “Today, we are resorting to modern technology to meet the citizens wherever they are,” says Niko Grünfeld, Copenhagen’s head of culture and leisure, who is responsible for citizens’ services in this city of 600,000 inhabitants.

Just a few years ago, six Borgerservice staff used to receive applicants, sending many home again because they had not brought the correct documents. Today, there are three touchscreen computers to direct visitors; they do this more quickly and more accurately than the human employees used to be able to. A sign by the entrance reads selvbetjening – self-service.

People rarely need to speak to the staff these days. If you need a new passport, for example, you are directed to a terminal where you do almost everything yourself: entering personal details, taking photographs or scanning fingerprints. Only at the very end of the process does a person check the applicant’s identity.

The administrators are behind the citizens’ centre, intentionally out of sight. The room is laid out to guide visitors in the right direction: towards the computers and terminals, and towards card payment rather than the cash-payment machine, which is hidden behind a potted plant.

Much like at airport check-in machines or supermarket self-checkouts, a member of staff is on hand in Copenhagen’s Borgerservice centre, too, in case anyone needs help. But their purpose is to instruct visitors so they can manage on their own.
The number of people employed at the citizens’ service bureaux in the Danish capital has dropped from 160 to 60 since 2010.

Although only one of six independent centres is still open, seven smaller branch offices have been set up in libraries. Two-thirds of Danes are regular visitors to a library, with a third dropping by once a month. More cooperative ventures between public institutions are planned, on the principle of a “one-stop shop”, says Grünfeld, so citizens can get as much as possible done in one place.

The number of people attending Copenhagen's citizens’ service centres has almost halved since 2010 because it is rarely necessary to visit the local authorities in person. This is thanks to the online citizens’ service centre, which functions around the clock. Here, Danes can do virtually anything official they might need to: report a change of address, apply for a place in a crèche, register a company or even file for divorce, all at the click of a mouse.

Analogue obstacles, such as the need to provide a signature, have been eliminated. Starting this summer, all draft legislation must be checked to ensure it can be implemented digitally. Denmark is regarded as a global pioneer – no other EU country has made a more wholehearted commitment to e-government. The first digitalisation strategy for this country of five million inhabitants was in place as early as 2001. Since then, more than 100 services have been digitalised.

No smiling! Anette Wenkens applies for a passport.
No smiling! Anette Wenkens applies for a passport.
Anita Terkelsen Takataro signs her ID card
Anita Terkelsen Takataro signs her ID card

Offer and obligation

“Citizens and companies receive a better service today, because digitalisation has made public authorities more efficient,” says Rikke Hougaard Zeberg. She is director general of the Digitalisation Agency, a public authority operating within the Danish finance ministry that was set up in 2011.

This is partly because of the way public and private-sector services are interlocked: Danes can use their NemID, a personal identification number, to apply for child benefits or a pension and to transfer money, but also to borrow books or make a doctor’s appointment.

However, all this is not just an offer but also a duty. When they turn 15, each Danish citizen gets a digital mailbox, or e-box, to which all correspondence from public organisations is sent, including letters from the bank or reminders about vaccination appointments for children. Only 10% of Danes asked to be exempted and to continue receiving correspondence on paper. “We were expecting twice as many,” says Hougaard Zeberg. She herself only uses her letterbox “for the newspaper” these days.

Perhaps surprisingly, 15- to 18-year-old are the least engaged users: one in four forget to check their digital mailboxes. Often, they lack an understanding of how the administration works and of their own obligations, says Hougaard Zeberg.

Danes are generally happy with their e-government – 87% of users said it was easy to find what they were looking for on, according to an official survey. The portal is to become even more convenient in the future, when the information stored can be put to a wider range of uses. Employers’ payroll accounts, for instance, show whether or not an individual is entitled to housing benefits.

Whereas in Germany the long-heralded digital citizens’ portal is only due to go into operation in October, in just four federal states and limited to four services, the servers in Denmark’s public administration are already working at their limit. Ines Mergel, professor of public administration at the University of Konstanz, in Baden-Württemberg, cites one key reason why the Danes have been so successful in digitalising their administration so efficiently. There is the Digitalisation Agency, an independent authority “made up of young, creative minds from different ministries and the private sector”.

From the start, she explains, Denmark was thinking not only of its citizens but also of businesses as users of e-government. “The key questions were: what do companies need? And what do public authorities need to implement this effectively?”

Niko Grünfeld believes service should be self-service
Niko Grünfeld believes service should be self-service

Model for Germany

Confidence in the government is greater in Denmark than in Germany, and there are fewer data-privacy concerns. Following a major hack attack last year, Danes are more worried about security, too. “The success of our digitalisation strategy is largely based on the trust of the citizens,” says Hougaard Zeberg. “It is extremely important for us to preserve this trust by demonstrating that we are careful with their data and that we protect it.”

This is why the public authorities need to keep up with technological developments. It is a particular challenge for the public sector, she says. “After all, it takes much longer to develop and implement strategies.”

Grünfeld believes personal services will continue to be needed, despite the digital offering. “Most people today prefer to serve themselves, when and where convenient. Offering them this option means that our staff can give other citizens the personal service and the help they require.”

The fact that Copenhagen’s citizens’ service is equally available to everyone – “irrespective of their digital skills”, as Grünfeld puts it – is a deliberate political choice. There are courses to instruct users in the self-service options, opportunities for newly naturalised citizens and refugees, and the elderly are also taken into account. Beyond this, citizens’ service staff are out and about every day to meet those who might benefit particularly from government services but who often do not come to the citizens’ centres at all – homeless people, for example, or addicts. In Copenhagen, this service is known as “to go”.

Every week, representatives from all over the world, including Germany, visit the citizens’ centre in the Danish capital. Domestically though, some take a more critical view of the transformation. Year after year, jobs have been cut, the demand for well-trained clerks has decreased, and not everyone is comfortable with their new role as an assistant in the background. However, anyone hoping that these changes might be reversed will be disappointed, because the people of Copenhagen like their new citizens’ service. In opinion polls, about 80%-90% of respondents said they were satisfied with it.

When the Danes started digitalising their administration, some people worried that public services might become too far removed from the citizens. Today, when Copenhagen’s residents complain about the authorities it is not due to a poorer service. “Two criteria are important to people,” says one member of staff. “It should be simple and it should be quick.” Complaints arise when the service is not up to date or when insufficient use is made of the technical possibilities.

Rising demands

“We have to keep up the pace,” says Grünfeld, “because in future there will be more ‘digital natives’, who will naturally have higher expectations.”

Jakob Skov is in charge of continuing to develop the Copenhagen Borgerservice. Every spring he sits down with eight of his colleagues, including IT managers, architects and service designers, to discuss how it can become better – organisationally, culturally and technically. This year, video services are to be added, which will allow Copenhageners to do even more from their homes or on the move. “We want to offer whatever citizens expect,” says Skov.

Remaining in personal contact with users helps him and his team to improve the service. Skov likes to sit down next to the citizens’ service terminals with a name badge pinned to his shirt. “People come up to me of their own accord, and tell me how things could be done better.”