Sweden has a reputation of being one of the countries where Internet penetration is the greatest. Current estimates are that well over 50 per cent of households have Internet access. This figure could be compared with the European Union (EU) average of around one-third, and the Spanish figure of roughly 13 per cent. It would be expected, then, that the development towards an electronic government would match those figures.
Access is one thing: usage is another. As the Internet is still not the main medium for conducting government external contacts, its use is still somewhat elusive. What is clear is that government sites do have a place in the Internet user’s mind – in an investigation from spring 2001, one-third of all Swedes said they had visited their city’s Web site during the past month.
The European context
It is important to note that much of what Sweden does in terms of e-government is done within a European Union perspective.
In early 2000, the European Council stated the EU strategic goal for the first decade of the 2000s is “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” Rapid growth of the information society was seen as an important foundation for achieving this.
The Commission presented the eEurope Action Plan in June 2000. Compared to the Bangemann Report of 1994, the current attitude towards Internet technology is considerably more open – in Europe, the Internet has until very recently been seen by many as a competitor to other European technologies rather than a de facto world standard.
Arguably, the most important incentive is to reduce the gap between Europe and the U.S.A. – as of early 2001, only 22 per cent of European households had Internet access, while the U.S. figure is 50 per cent.
There is also an even larger gap between northern and southern Europe, with Sweden having more than 50 per cent and Spain 13 per cent.
For the eEurope sub-project Government On-line, by 2003, the following six goals should have been reached:
1) Easy access to important public sector information over the Internet. An example of this is that each government agency shall have its own Web site.
2) Simple Internet-based administrative procedures for companies, for instance, guiding the start-up of companies (There is a Swedish site on this topic at www.kontakt-n.nu, produced in cooperation between two major national government agencies).
3) The EU Commission shall define a common model for presenting information about the public sector at its different levels.
4) The Commission and the member states shall establish common European Web sites for interactive public services.
5) The use of free software in the public sector shall be encouraged.
6) The Commission shall make all simple transactions available over the Internet.
Let us now go on to see how Sweden is doing on the relevant points above.
The domestic context
The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Stats-kontoret) is the national Swedish body that provides support to the government and government offices in the development towards an electronic government. Statskontoret’s efforts for guiding the development includes the following measures:
- Developing methods for analyzing information and service demands from a customer perspective, and the opportunities to meet those demands.Analyzing the service processes from a customer perspective – how can contacts with government agencies be reduced on part of the customer, and what requirements for inter-governmental cooperation does such a reduction entail.Developing the specifications for a common basic infrastructure for secure and efficient communication internally and with citizens and companies.Developing methods for evaluating the progress towards the 24/7 agency, to be used both by individual government agencies for self-assessment and for the annual audit report which is presented to the Parliament.Suggesting models for financing investments in the common infrastructure.Initiate and carry out cooperation projects in the e-government field.
From both a European and global perspective, Sweden scores relatively well on many of the above points. Still, most advances so far concern information. There is still some way to go before procedures are available electronically on a large scale.
On the positive side, there is some quite remarkable progress to mention. The half-decade that has passed since governments discovered the Web have been
filled with the eager producing of Web pages, an activity that by now has become institutionalized. All Swedish towns are on the Web, even the smallest ones. All
regional and most national government agencies (there are some 400) also have a Web presence. On the negative side, finding one’s way to all these sites is difficult, although there is a government site that provides an index, “Sweden Directly” (Sverige Direkt, www.sverigedirekt.riksdagen.se).
There are also a few examples of government cooperation to achieve better searchability. The most important example is in the social services sector, where five of the biggest government agencies including the Employment Office and the Social Insurance Agency have established a shared portal with index and search facilities to guide citizens to all their services (www.medborgartorget.nu). But these efforts still need to be developed further to provide the citizen who is not that knowledgeable about where in the government organizational matrix the solution to her problem is to be found.
The Swedish policy, as expressed by Statskontoret, is citizen/customer. An example is the idea of “service dialogues”, which means government agencies will state explicitly what individual citizens and business can expect from public sector services. The “customers” will then be provided not only a tool for making demands on the organization they are encountering, but also a trail for complaints and one for suggestions about how the agency’s service can be improved. The service dialogues are currently on field trials in several agencies.
The biggest obstacles right now, says Lars Dahlberg, head of the Department for Administrative Development at Statskontoret, is to adjust legislation to accommodate electronic signatures, to establish a national infrastructure catering to the necessary security measures, and to find new forms of financing efforts. He also says e-government is about organizational strategic renewal, not about technology, and does not come automatically but needs to be promoted Olov