Denmark’s federated architecture

Having recently spent some time with a delegation of elected officials from Denmark, it seemed worthwhile to reflect on the similarities and differences with respect to e-government’s evolution in both countries.

Indeed, Denmark and Canada share many general traits in terms of the emergence of e-government in both countries. Internet and telecommunications infrastructures are well developed and widely accessible. There is a tradition of strong government involvement in many aspects of societal and economic development in both countries.

More specifically, there would seem to be three broad areas that overlap both countries in terms of e-government’s emergence to date: firstly, an overriding focus on service delivery; secondly, difficulties encountered in realizing more interoperable governance structures across departments and agencies; and thirdly, questions about sustained leadership at both bureaucratic and political levels in moving forward with the e-government agenda.

With respect to differences, two key areas are most pronounced. First, concerns about privacy and online security are much greater in Canada than would seem to be the case in Denmark (a point underscored by a recent OECD Review of the Danish e-government experience). Danish and Scandinavian traditions of openness and a greater level of trust on the part of the public accorded to governments in holding and managing their personal information yield a much different operating environment than is the case here in North America.

This trust is enabling Danish public sector authorities to overcome barriers to interoperability and to integrate service streams and become more aggressive in promoting electronic channels — even making it compulsory in some cases to access government services online. The Danish government is also pursuing a plan to ensure that by 2012, every citizen has a personal Web page that will serve as the basis for all service transactions with government (and potentially with private sector partners such as banks).

This plan encompasses national, regional and local authorities and this seamless approach to the country as a whole marks the second major difference — namely the Danish emphasis on building stronger local governments as the frontline dimension to a national public sector. Denmark is not a federation — and yet it would seem that a paradoxical result is that there is a much greater emphasis in Denmark on inter-governmental co-ordination and joint planning than is the case in Canada.

One key reason for this seemingly counter-intuitive situation is the strong traditions of municipal autonomy — as well as the strong fiscal base of local governments, in stark contrast to local governments in North America. In Canada, municipalities do not have constitutional recognition — rather, they are within the provincial domain and greatly dependent on provincial regulation and funding (with only a limited property tax base).

From the point of view of service delivery, this situation creates the potential for competitive as well as collaborative pressures across jurisdictions. For example, a resident of Toronto may be simultaneously served by Service Canada, Service Ontario, and the City of Toronto via its new 311 initiative as well as the municipal portal.

Despite Web links and a few, all-too-rare pilot initiatives, each set of delivery channels (online, telephone or in-person) is managed separately by each level of government. This situation is quite different from the Danish setting, where local governments are empowered as the frontline delivery agent for the bulk of public services offered by the public sector as a whole.

In comparison to that of Canada, a Danish strength is the emphasis on both municipal autonomy and inter-governmental co-ordination. Interestingly, many small unitary states (such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands) are closer to the technology-inspired concept of a federated architecture than are formal political federations (such as those of North America). Canada has much to learn in this regard, in terms of better integrating municipalities into a holistic vision of public sector reform.

In fact, Denmark is in the midst of a set of major structural reforms that will create smaller, larger and more powerful municipal governments. When one compares the clout of local governments in Denmark – and the strong emphasis on inter-governmental co-ordination and planning, municipal leaders in this country can only be envious. Recall that in a recent issue of this magazine, former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray characterized his provincial relationship as “awful” and the single largest impediment to better government.

Technology can be a force for both centralizing and decentralizing power — ideally facilitating a strategic balance between the two. Our federalist traditions and the ongoing obsession with federal-provincial relations mean that any such balance in this country remains elusive.

Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration, Faculty of Management, at Dalhousie University. He can be reached at

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