Rikke Zeberg, Director-General, Agency for Digitisation, Ministry of Finance, Denmark

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

In Denmark, we have a long history of digitising the public sector. That means that today we primarily communicate digitally with our citizens and businesses – and vice versa.

When the citizens receive mail from the public authorities, they get it in a secure digital mailbox, called Digital Post. That’s a big step, and we couldn’t do it if there had not been a strong political will to make bold decisions early on.

When most citizens file their taxes, they actually don’t need to do anything! Citizens only need to check whether the pre-registered data collected by the tax authorities are correct. If they are correct, you as a citizen don't have to do anything. This is good citizen service. You make it easy and automatic for citizens, and you minimize the risk for mistakes.

When citizens need to file for student loans, apply for kindergarten, or register a new address, they do it online via our national citizen portal. It offers a single point of access to services provided by both central, regional, and local governments.

Due to both our history of public digitisation and a very digital public sector, our citizens have high demands and expectations for high quality public service provision. We want to meet those expectations – and we try to do so every day.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

In October, the Danish government released a new strategy for securing “digital service in world class”. We have worked a lot on contributing to that. It basically sets a new and higher level of ambition for the future of digital transformation of our public service delivery.

For many years, we have digitised the public sector in Denmark, but we have – unfortunately – done it sector-wise, and sometimes forgotten to think about the coherence for our citizens. We want to create a public service which is designed around the needs of the citizens. The citizen needs to perceive the public sector as “one” – and not as fragmented, individual authorities in the public sector.

Also, we will have a sharp focus on the transparency of use of the huge amount of data in the public sector. Data is necessary to create coherency, and data is necessary to provide user-centered and user-friendly services. But in order to be able to offer this, we need the trust of the citizens. Luckily, the trust between citizens and government is high in Denmark – but we continuously need to address the concerns in the population. Therefore, we want to give citizens full insight into their own data and information.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

I think it is extremely important to always remember not to take the citizens’ trust for granted. We have to be very humble considering the task we’ve been given, and the trust confided in us to securely handle the citizens’ data.

Therefore, we must consistently do everything we can to keep the information safe, but also to be very open about what data we possess, what we use it for, and how we share it. To keep a high level of trust, we need to be transparent. And we need to take all the necessary preparatory steps within cyber and information security to prepare ourselves against cyber threats and attacks.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

For me, the most exciting development is within emerging technologies and its vast and mostly unexplored potentials for public service quality and efficiency - for example, the applications of AI within the health sector such as cancer screenings.

We want to spearhead use of technologies such as AI and machine learning to achieve an even better and more efficient service delivery in our public sector.
"We want to spearhead use of technologies such as AI and machine learning."
But this has to be done in a proper and ethical manner. I think one of the trademarks of a Danish – and Nordic – approach to the adoption and use of emerging technologies is that we want to do it in a manner that respects you as an individual person. We do not want to trespass personal boundaries that should not be trespassed. We want to ensure that adoption and use of emerging technologies are happening in a pace and manner that is accepted broadly by the population.

This is why we want to pilot and then implement nationally when we’ve successfully learned from the pilot.

What are your priorities for 2019?

My focus for 2019 is the implementation of the digital service reform of the government’s Coherency Reform. I am fully aware that the hard work starts now.

We have to realise the government’s vision, and for that we need a strong cooperation with several key stakeholders, both public and private. We have historically been very good at this in Denmark, but cooperation is a continuous battle with compromises to be made. But the results are usually rewarding for all parties within the public sector.

What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

I have always tried to be decent and respectful to all. To be fact-based and thorough in the way I work with my different assignments and to deliver what I have promised. It may sound a bit old-fashioned, but I don’t believe you have to strike a compromise between thoroughness and innovative thinking, just because you are thorough in the way you do your job. In my experience, the two considerations go hand in hand.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

The importance of digital transformation will only increase in the coming years. Public service provision will become more user-centered and individualised.

And perhaps automatisation through an increasing usage of emerging technological solutions might even abolish the need for services we today see as necessities. If a strong and available database can decide on the level of a particular payout of a social benefit, citizens do not need to service themselves online.

In this aspect as well, it is important that we keep the citizens’ trust in mind. If we continuously keep that, we can use automatic handling of cases in a wider extent than today to guarantee the citizens a fair and even treatment on the basis of objective criteria where possible – and use the freed time of public servants for cases which demand special attention and a human assessment.

Therefore, we have to be careful not to make things more complex than necessary. We need to always consider how we make things easier, more simple. It is tempting to put layer on layer of rules and regulations to be on the safe side. We have to be aware of this, so we also in the future are able to use digitation for a better public service.

Coffee, yoga, music… what powers you through your day?

Since my first job as a manager, I have always made it a matter of principle to insist on having space for my family and myself in an otherwise tightly scheduled week.

There is always more paperwork to be done and more meetings to be held, but you simply need time for relaxation and thinking – to strike a healthy balance between a busy work-life and a family life. I clear my mind and re-energise by running preferably in the forest, and once a week, I go horseback riding with my daughter.