There are definitely things to be learned from how agencies acted in the Covid crisis – they threw away a lot of internal bureaucracy and hierarchical decision-making and just did things.
If Swedish respondents are to be believed, Sweden is a true exemplar in operating public services that respond quickly and effectively to the changing needs of its citizens.
Even within the Nordic countries, which are generally more positive about their responsiveness than the Five Eyes, Swedish leaders self-assessed their organisations more highly than any other country on almost all indicators.
In response to the overarching statement my organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs, only one of the 15 senior Swedes disagreed, and then only somewhat. Thirteen agreed strongly.
This groundswell of positivity will come as no surprise to regular readers of the World Happiness Report, which ranks nations based on respondents’ ratings of their own lives correlated with various quality-of-life indicators. Along with many other Nordic countries, Sweden consistently appears at or near the top of this index, so it seems that the survey respondents’ views may broadly reflect the attitudes of the Swedish population in general.
However, Martin Eriksson, agile and public sector expert, PA Consulting, believes the optimism displayed in our survey sample doesn’t tally with views he encounters from public sector clients.
Eriksson says that usually Swedes assess themselves pretty low in research and recent OECD civil service benchmarking studies have seen Sweden slipping down the rankings, partly as a result of poor results on collaboration between agencies. He has a theory about this.
“I think the problem is that Sweden was really fast when it came to doing digitalisation and self-service in public services, but it was all done in silos,” says Eriksson. “When you need to interact with other departments, it’s much harder. If something needs to be done where three or four or five different agencies are to be involved, it has to be priority one in each of those agencies at the same time or it won’t happen.”
However, he says that Sweden was a pioneer when it came to the development of self-service government, and that this was helped hugely by the willingness of the population to be identified by officials.
Sweden’s successful digital identity scheme, BankID, which is used by most of the population, is a promulgation of that. As well as enabling the government to design and deliver services digitally, such schemes assist with the collection of data about demand for and use of those services.
This was borne out in extremely confident Swedish responses to statements about the use of data and end-user feedback in the design and delivery of policy and services.
Eriksson says that citizens now expect that when they access services from one government organisation that agency will have their data from all other agencies. However, GDPR and other data privacy regulations mean this is not a given.
He believes that ever-growing requirements around data protection and cybersecurity could pose a huge risk to governments’ ability to respond effectively to citizens’ needs in the future.
More than nine in ten of the Swedish leaders agreed that adapting to the Covid crisis had enabled them to develop new capabilities. Eriksson believes that Swedish civil servants surprised themselves by how well they handled the pandemic.
“There are definitely things to be learned from how agencies acted in the Covid crisis – they threw away a lot of internal bureaucracy and hierarchical decision-making and just did things. One agency was tasked with making sure that the financial stimuli to small companies were made – they went from nothing to a working solution in seven weeks, yet they’d never actually developed anything before.”
Dani Dawoodson Razmgah, chief customer officer at Sweden’s Companies Registration Office (SCRO), adds that the Covid crisis has had a silver lining in the form of accelerated digital transformation, both within and outside Sweden.
The SCRO is part of the European Business Registry Association (EBRA), some of whose members, particularly in southern European countries, were less technologically advanced and still used paper documents and processed everything through a notary. However, at the first virtual EBRA conference in June 2021, Razmgah was pleased to find that even in those countries, mindsets had changed and the benefits of digitalisation were being realised.
Sweden: collaboration and hands-off management
The process of setting up a company in Sweden takes up to eight weeks. There are several steps to navigate, such as obtaining a statement from the bank confirming your share capital, registering with the Companies Registration Office (SCRO) and the tax authority and, depending on the type of business, potentially with the local municipal authority. Each part of the process is conducted via paper and post.
The ambition is that, by the end of 2027, every step will be digitised and the process should take five minutes.
This is just one project of an international collaboration called Nordic Smart Government (NSG) which aims to promote growth and innovation across the Nordic region by connecting consenting private and public sector information systems and making real-time business data accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises.
NSG comprises 16 organisations including the business registries, statistics agencies and tax authorities of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. Since 2016, it has been defining the concept and scope, detailing requirements based on customer needs, and writing the roadmap and implementation plan that was launched in 2021.
This involves extensive consultation with private sector representative bodies and academic researchers. The ultimate aim is that, by 2027, the Nordic countries will be the most integrated region in the world.
Dani Dawoodson Razmgah is chief customer officer at the SCRO, and he says NSG is a great example of Nordic efforts to continually improve and streamline services for citizens and customers.
However, the concept did not come from central government – it is an initiative driven by the participating agencies themselves. Nordic nations are renowned for having cultures that promote social capital and this extends to high levels of empowerment and accountability of employees in all sectors, including the public sector. Razmgah himself worked in a large international private company before joining the SCRO and was shocked by the extent of micromanagement from the company’s European chief, who was British.
“In Sweden, we have a totally different management style. I don’t know how to directly translate it, but we have some kind of trust in each other. They give you the ‘what’ to do, but the ‘how’ to do it is up to you, within a frame of course. But I also know that if I don’t deliver what is expected, I don’t have a job any more.
“If you think about the 80/20 rule that says 80% of the people are doing the right things but 20% are not following the rules or not delivering, then we take the view that instead of checking up on everyone, let’s just check on that 20% instead. And that’s why I think this survey shows that people here are quite happy – it is a good place to work.”