Government digital transformation: Contrasting approaches in Sweden vs. The UK

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As part of our research programme here at Digma we compared the government approach to digital transformation in Sweden and the UK. We were interested in understanding whether their approaches differed and if any conclusions might be drawn.

Digital transformation is viewed as a key modernising force in both the public and private sectors and digital technologies are considered an important driver of efficiencies, competitiveness and innovation. This transformation process typically has a broad systemic impact; it fundamentally changes operations, products & services, internal and customer facing processes, organisational structures and management.

Researchers have already established that organisational structures are influenced by the technologies employed within them. Moreover, there is a close relationship between technology, organisations and institutions. In comparing the approaches of Sweden and the UK we were particularly interested in identifying the focus and direction of each country’s digital transformation, seeking to establish whether ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom -up’ approaches had been followed.

Our choice of Sweden versus the UK was driven by the eGovernment Benchmark 2016 Insight report which identified the fact that the two countries were at differing stages of government digitalisation maturity. The measure of maturity was determined by two indicators:

■ Penetration - the level of citizen usage of online eGovernment services

■ Digitisation - a measure of a public administration’s efficiency and effectiveness in their digitised procedures

The difference between the two countries is interesting. In common with all the Nordic countries, Sweden is a leading nation in terms of e-Government maturity. As such, Sweden is characterised by both a high level of citizen usage of government digital services and a high degree of digitisation of government services – an exemplar of an innovative and successful digitisation programme.

The UK meanwhile is characterised by a high level of penetration in terms of internet usage but a low level of digitisation of government services and is therefore classified as a laggard compared to the most advanced countries.

During the research period (2010-2017) Sweden’s position in terms of digitalisation was listed in the ‘progressive’ category for 2012/2013, moving to the ‘mature’ category (the most advanced of the five classifications) in 2014/2015. In contrast, over the same period the UK had not made any progress and remained in the ‘high potential’ category, the fourth of five categories overall.

Our research then explored the way digital transformation was planned and organised in the UK and Swedish governments. The comparison led to some interesting insights in terms of how the transformation was approached, the strategic intent and the related tasks, roles and structures planned by the two governments.

We found that the focus of digital transformation in 2012 was significantly different in the UK when compared to Sweden. Sweden’s digital transformation was focused on internal processes and operations rather than on customer-facing aspects as was the case in the UK.

The UK’s digital transformation journey started later than that of Sweden. We clearly identified two distinct phases for the UK, with a first phase in 2012 focused on the digitalisation of high-volume transactional services. The drivers of this were distinctly top down; they included a need to catch up with the private sector, a need to progress digital maturity in line with the EU framework and a wish to develop a service culture for government departments in general. New institutional arrangements - in this case the establishment of the Government Digital Service - led to changes in organisation. New roles were introduced and new capabilities added, all of which ultimately enabled the digital changes to happen.

Only in 2017 did a second phase for the UK commence. At this point a bottom-up approach was inaugurated, with back-end operations and internal processes undergoing significant change. Since then, the transformation has driven further changes in organisational structure, roles and responsibilities. This illustrates the point that the alignment of technology and organisational structure can be a process driven by both macro and micro forces.

In the Swedish context the digital transformation of services was mostly completed prior to the issue of its 2012 strategy. Sweden’s higher level of digital government maturity was reflected in its focus on processes and coordination at that time – a bottom-up approach that itself drove organisational restructuring.

Looking at the digital strategies of the two countries there are some interesting observations for those in public administration considering digital transformation. The initial drive for digital transformation is inevitably top down as strategic intent and the overall level of resource allocation is identified and briefed. Transformation Directors must then take early control, shaping the direction and organisation of the programme. This control however must provide the scope for, and indeed encourage, bottom up changes to surface and be appraised and, if appropriate, embraced. As we have seen in the Swedish government example, such bottom-up processes better deliver digital maturity in eGovernment, which, in turn, appear to drive the effective alignment of technology and organisation structure.