Digital identity systems are crucial for modern governments. Across the world, officials are building secure ways for citizens to identify themselves online. But issues of security, privacy, data sharing and efficiency are all tied up in this tricky bundle.

Denmark has one of the world’s leading identity systems. Today, Danes can interact with government, banks and private sector using NemID – also known as EasyID. It has been the “backbone of the whole digital movement in Denmark”, Frelle-Petersen, head of Denmark’s digital government says.

GovInsider caught up with Denmark’s digital chief to find out the country’s progress on this, its vision for the future, and the challenges faced along the way.

Digital Denmark

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About 4.8 million citizens now use EasyID for day-to-day affairs, Frelle-Petersen says. “For instance, if you want to sell your own furniture, you can use it on a homepage to make dealings with each other so that you know that the other party is who he says he is”. In fact, “you can even make appointments with your hairdresser using the ID.”

Digital identity is needed for all businesses to register with the Government, roughly one million firms. But its use has expanded beyond public sector: “More than 80 percent of all transactions are [now] towards bank and private companies”, Frelle-Petersen shares.

The project failed to pick up momentum in 2001, but started to gain traction after the government partnered with private banks to build and co-own the solution. The Government was “not an expert in user-friendliness”, he admits.

The team is now working on a third generation digital ID – scheduled for release in 2020 – to make it “cheaper and easier for [companies] to use in their interactions with their customers”, Frelle-Petersen says. “We can see that many of the private companies are very, very eager on finding a way to secure their communication with their customers”, and likewise to build trust among consumers, he continues.

Shifting patient care to homes

Denmark has an ageing population, and wants to use ICT to care for the elderly. Part of this entails shifting patient care to homes, starting with chronic lung patients and those who have mental sickness. It has rolled out a national monitoring system to track lung patient care, and is piloting a process for mental patients to be treated at home.

Mental patients can book appointments online and talk to their psychiatrists remotely. For many of them, “it’s quite a challenge to actually move around”, he says; but this will make them feel “more secure, and they get well faster.”

So far, the trial for mental patient care has been a “big success”, Frelle-Petersen says, and it’s something that the government “can roll out on a national scale” once more positive results show.

Frelle-Petersen believes this move is one that will future-proof the economy: “We will, in the future have a lot more elderly people in Denmark [and] a lot more chronic patients that have to be treated.” Remote patient care is one that can help slash costs, and improve patient satisfaction “by providing them with a lot more telemedicine solutions in the future”, he says.

Frelle-Petersen’s next mission is to boost education standards. “We think that there is a big future of digital education”, he says. The agency is building a shared platform that will be used by primary schools to update parents on teaching goals, learning activities, and have an app store to host e-learning solutions.

So far, all schools are on board. The platform is scheduled for roll out in 2019, and will replace the existing system, which lacks the capacity to handle e-learning tools, he says; it’s hard “to get them to work [across] different school systems”.

Lessons from the trade

Denmark is one of the most digitally-advanced nations in Europe. But the shift didn’t come easy: the government managed to engage its citizens because it first made solutions mandatory. “Every year we made large campaigns towards our citizens in general, informing them of which new solutions they have to use”, he says.

“One of the government’s first move was mandating e-invoicing for businesses and setting up a standardised bank account for citizens where Government could pay out benefits directly to them. “It was a tremendous success”, Frelle-Petersen recalls, saving them a huge sum of money.

Other initiatives include shifting citizen communications online. “Around 90 percent of all our citizens today are signing up for a Digital Post solution, where they receive almost all kinds of letters [from] the public sector”, Frelle-Petersen says. “There, we can see that the satisfaction percentage is very high.”

The shift of citizen engagement online didn’t happen overnight. Surprisingly, it was those aged 15 to 20 who were hard to get through to, Frelle-Petersen says. They are not “ready to interact with us online”, he says, even though by law, they are “mature enough to receive letters and make decisions”. His team has since crafted dedicated Facebook campaigns and classroom materials to address this, “but it’s [still] very difficult to reach out to these young people because they don’t understand much of the public sector”, he says.

Stumbling blocks

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It isn’t a smooth road ahead. Frelle-Petersen’s team still has work to iron out – among them, getting buy-in from other agencies. “The reason why we sometimes make things into a legislation is because then there’s no way around it; the single institution is forced to obey the law.” When negotiations weren’t binding, “we have [had] problems of making all follow the same path”, he says.

Security is another of his concerns. In 2013, the country’s digital identity suffered from a DDoS attack that caused a system-wide shutdown, resulting in a temporary halt of internet banking services. Frelle-Petersen plans to use legislation to standardise the security levels across institutions. Some of them face an incentive to lower their standards to save costs, he says, “but that means there is a weakened point in the chain where hackers can potentially get in”.

In a country where citizens’ trust of the government is already high, Frelle-Petersen doesn’t take it for granted. “We have to have our citizens trust that when they interact with us online… it has to be secure, it has to be trustworthy, and they have to trust these digital channels.”

The agency has set up My Page, a site where citizens can “get an overview of the data that we have around them”, using their digital identity as a log-in, he says. Further, “they can track interactions that they’re having with the public sector”, like status updates; which agency is in charge of their cases; and how soon to expect a response, he continues.

But, despite the challenges, Denmark is leading the way. It has just been invited to join the D5 group of nations, a self-selecting group of the world’s leading digital governments. Frelle-Petersen believes that it “will be a way of learning and getting to cooperate even closer” – if Denmark formally accepts the offer.

On digital identity, healthcare, and citizen engagement, it already has much to teach the governments of Asia Pacific.