Norway was Showcase Country at GTEC 2005, highlighting its e-government accomplishments and aspirations with exhibits, keynote speakers and presenters. Among the delegation was Eirik Lae Solberg who, despite his title as Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Modernization, is a career politician. In his early 30’s he has already served as a local councillor and political assistant to the Minister of Trade and Industry. He spoke with Richard Bray of CIO Governments Review about Norway’s path to online services. Excerpts from their conversation follow:
Q. When did Norway’s leadership realize that Information Technology required a guiding vision?
A. I think we realized that we needed an IT vision several years ago. In the last couple of years, it has been a very strong focus on actually achieving gains and organizing our different IT projects into a single targeted approach. To sum it up, our IT vision says that solutions should firstly be used to make the public sector more accessible to citizens and more accessible to business, make it easier to communicate with the public sector. The second part of our vision is that we want to use IT to create a more effective, more citizen-friendly public sector, in the sense that we will use modern technology to shift resources from shuffling paper to actually providing services like treating patients. The third pillar of our vision is that we should pursue policies in which ICT becomes a competitive edge for Norwegian industry.
Q. What’s the hard part?
A. The hard past is making every government agency, every part of local, regional and central government work together to actually present the public sector as one accessible government and one accessible service provider. Making all these different agencies work together is a challenge. We try to approach that by setting down common standards or at least the outline of common standards, which every government agency has to relate to, and which every local government is strongly urged to relate to, because they have local autonomy.
Q. In Canada, the federal government achieved several goals by imposing a common ‘look and feel’ on a multitude of Web sites. It helps businesses and citizens to navigate, but it was also a step against the desire for privilege based on uniqueness. Has Norway taken any such steps?
A. We are doing something similar to that, creating a common look and feel, but we have three projects that have had a great impact on cohesion. One which has been implemented and continues to develop is the creation of one portal where every business can get information from government and send the information they are by law required to send in to government – tax returns, statistics and so forth – one place where they can send all that information. That is the final goal. Right now, somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of all information can be sent through that portal, so we have actually come far in establishing one gateway for information and the exchange of information between business and government. The idea is of course that business will never have to report the same information more than once to government … allowing business to cut costs and become more competitive.
The second initiative which will be launched in December is a citizens’ portal where citizens will get a personal, individualized Web page for all their communication with government. The first version will constitute some of the most important national government agencies. Throughout 2006 and early 2007 we will see local government and some late starters in central government be available in that portal. So you can find all government services in the portal.
But that’s not all – you will also be able to log on as an individual and get personalized services and in the future, with security mechanisms, you will be able to communicate with your doctor, you could change your tax information which is available in the first version, apply for a place in kindergarten for your children, and be told when your car needs to be checked for road safety – everything within one portal so it would make it possible for you to sit at home, do business with government from your own living room instead of queuing up in a public office.
So that is the vision. Since every government agency has to fit their services into that portal, that creates a very strong impetus for standardization. The third initiative is linked to those two, because that is the common security portal that both these portals and citizens will use to have safe log-on and individualized services and information.
Q. Norway seems to be achieving a level of trust between citizens and government that Canada has yet to meet. Have you encountered suspicion of government?
A. I think one major challenge when it comes to privacy issues is that the individual and the citizen do not actually know what kind and how much information government has collected about them. Through our initiative you will be able to see quite easily in the citizens’ portal what kind of information government has, because that is the same information you will see in the portal. You will also be able to choose to allow government departments to share information. I am convinced that giving people the choice, with the promise that sharing will enable better services, will increase the individual’s awareness of privacy issues, and I think one of the greatest challenges in privacy issues today is making each and every individual think about what privacy means to them. Do I care whether my information is available to different agencies? If you care you should have the opportunity to stop it.
Having said that, we are trying to take heed of privacy issues in our initiative. We are not constructing a large, central database. We are basing the new citizens’ portal service on the existing databases in each government agency so if as a citizen you log on to the Norwegian portal and you ask for a piece of information the system would ask the providing agency’s database for that information and it would appear onscreen immediately. Once you log off, that information will go back to the original database.
Q. Is health care the most important sector?
A. It is one of the top ones, for sure. The gains from using modern technology in health are so evident, I think anyone would be hard pressed to argue against it. It is special and different because you can so easily see gains. You are talking about life and death. You are talking about people’s health. In the health sector, by using modern technology, you can really see the gains.
In a remote village in central Norway, people had to travel at least three hours each way to get to a hospital. If you are dependent on dialysis because of kidney failure, you might have to go two or three times a week. That is an enormous strain on people who already have a serious disease. What we have done is introduce telemedicine, allowing patients to be treated in their hometown where specialists sit 200 or 300 kilometres away and a local doctor or nurse can treat the patient. That is an enormous gain for people. They can live an almost normal life instead of constant travel. That is one example of how modern technology can improve people’s lives.
Q. In Canada, the federal government has impressed private business with some highly visible successes. There is no question that the online Record of Employment saves time and money, for example. Does Norway need to make an obvious business case for online services?
A. I think to a large extent the pressure comes from business. Most modern countries probably have too much red tape. It is very time-consuming. Especially for small businesses, the resources spent on following government regulations, dealing with red tape, were relatively so high compared to their capacity that they couldn’t get the real job done. Too many resources went into dealing with bureaucracy. Quite early, there was a common understanding in business and government that by using modern technology we can solve a lot of these problems. The business portal will very soon be able to communicate with the computer systems of each business so all the managers will have to do is allow the transmission of information.
Q. Like Canada, Norway has selected a deadline date for the achievement of certain goals. Why did you select 2009?
A. The present eNorway is our strategy and action plan for creating a true digital society and it was launched in late June of this year. In Norway, each parliamentary period lasts four years so we launched that as our ambition for the next four-year period. That is just one step along the road so in three or four years it will be necessary to launch a new plan. What we have done is set clear targets for what we want to achieve in different areas – how much reporting businesses can do electronically, how many government agencies will do all case handling electronically and so forth, how much will citizens know about digital tools. So we set clean goals and we are establishing tools to measure how we are doing.