The journey to becoming one of the world’s best digital societies has required a box of Lego bricks, lots of trust, and unique public-private partnerships. Read on to learn why international delegations flock to Finland to learn more.
Expect to learn:
- How the Nordic welfare state was converted to one of the best digital societies in the world.
- What are the most important building blocks of digital society.
- What are the key factors in building trust in digital transformation.
On the day Finland was ranked the happiest nation in the world for the sixth year in a row, Stefan Lindström, the Digital Ambassador for Finland, met a delegation from South Africa led by Panyaza Andrek Lesufi, the Premier of the Gauteng Province. Ambassador Lindström was asked what’s behind the top ranking.
Not an easy question, but as a seasoned diplomat Stefan Lindström was ready to give it a shot.
He brought up another ranking. In 2022, Finland was also ranked first in the European Union’s digital performance comparison DESI. DESI monitors the digital performance of member states and tracks their progress in digitalisation.
“It all comes down to how the Finnish society has been built,” Mr. Lindström says.
“It’s not like Finns spontaneously burst with joy. Finland scores high in the ranking because Finns trust the society and how the system works. And it’s when data and services are safe and secure that the society works.”
“It’s when data and services are safe and secure that the society works.”
Wherever the Finnish ambassador travels, he can share jaw-dropping examples from his native country. Like the one of fully digitalised, paperless healthcare administration, with all prescriptions and medical records in one digital system. With the consent of the patient, this data is available for medical professionals from both public and private sectors and citizens alike. The shared patient data comes in handy, for example, if one needs medical care during a vacation away from home.
Other examples include pre-completed tax returns that require no paperwork or even filling online forms. Or the smooth process of renewing ID cards, driving licenses or even passports: in most cases, there’s no need to visit the authorities or spend time in queues as applications are done online. Even the face shot for passport is transferred digitally from the photo studio to the police, the authority issuing passports.
All this is enabled by a comprehensive pool of digital registers and population data, allowing further automatisation of services.
The more unnoticed the services work, the better they are, says Stefan Lindström.
The aim, after all, is to make life easier.
The more unnoticed the services work, the better they are. The aim, after all, is to make life easier.
“Technology is an enabler, not an end in itself,” says also Harri Mansikkamäki, Head of International Business Development at Gofore. “What we can achieve with digitalisation is what counts.”
By creating automatic and proactive services societies can allocate the ever-scarcer resources timely and efficiently, be it people or hospital beds. The capital city Helsinki, for example, has introduced a service that identifies family needs and automatically proposes suitable kindergarten placements for the parents. This saves time and work for both city and school employees, as well as parents.
Gofore has been one of the key partners in building the backbone of the Finnish digital society: it has developed the service interface of Suomi.fi authentication and transaction service. Suomi.fi is a national web service (Suomi is Finnish for ‘Finland’) that gathers information, instructions and services needed from birth to death – a go-to address for all citizens and entrepreneurs.
To make things work, the site includes national services for identification and e-authorisation. This means that with a single sign-on citizens can pay taxes, transfer ownership of a car or authorise someone else to pick their prescription drugs from the local pharmacy – just to name a few examples. In 2022, there were almost 200 million logins, a considerable number in a country with only 4,5 million adult citizens.
The service has earned several awards and gained international interest.
“Last year we hosted more than a dozen delegations from abroad. This year the number will most likely double as the Covid restrictions have been lifted,” says Chief Senior Specialist Jani Ruuskanen from the Finnish Digital Agency.
According to him, many delegations seek to learn from the Nordic welfare state and digital government. Some visitors come from highly digitalised countries like Japan that still trust paper forms in majority of public services.
So what’s the trick? How did Finland get where it is now, and what can we learn from that journey? Becoming one of the world’s best digital societies did not happen overnight. Instead, it has required persistent work, unique public-private partnerships, and collaboration across administrative and national borders – plus a box of Lego bricks.
Under construction: digital services on their way!
In the beginning of the new millennium, the buzzword was web portals. In 2001, the Ministry of Finance, the government body responsible for digitalisation, set to launch Suomi.fi. This was to be a national portal gathering the scattered public services and instructions provided by the state and municipalities.
And by gathering we mean manually collecting URL links. The editorial staff went through the webpages of hundreds of Finnish municipalities and copied links to be pasted on the national site. The round started from the most northern town Utsjoki in the Finnish Lapland, and by the time they finally reached the southern city of Hanko, a great part of the information had already become obsolete. Thus, the work started all over again. Due to the broken links, the site got angry feedback. The citizens were not happy.
By 2011 it had become obvious that a serious makeover was needed: a platform that would genuinely gather all services and provide identification tools so that citizens could sign in to use digital services and review their personal data. To plan the new services, Suomi.fi staff and experts from the Government ICT Centre and the Ministry of Finance gathered in a workshop. They wanted to envision the future services in an agile manner, with users – citizens – at the focus of the development.
What they came out with was a model of future services, constructed from Duplo building blocks (not a totally exceptional solution – Lego workshops are a popular tool in agile software development). This Lego model was then packed in a cardboard box and presented to the decision-makers in the Ministry of Finance.
“Surely, we later drew a more sophisticated layout of the services,” chuckles Maria Nikkilä, then Project Manager at the Government ICT Centre, later the Head of Digitalisation in the Ministry of Finance. Currently she is the Chief Information Officer for City of Tampere.
Nikkilä and her colleagues had been benchmarking and exploring best examples from Estonia, Denmark, and The Netherlands.
“We copied all that was working well and pondered what we could do better. E-authorisation was one of the services that didn’t exist anywhere else. And still doesn’t, not in the extent that it is in use in Finland.”
E-authorisation was one of the services that didn’t exist anywhere else. And still doesn’t.
Many of these services later became reality in the form of the National Service Architecture programme (KaPA), the heart and backbone of digitalised Finland. The architecture was coded and put into practice by Gofore. The publicly stated purpose of the KaPA programme, which began in 2014, included “simplifying and facilitating transactions by citizens, companies, and organisations with the authorities. In addition, the purpose was to improve shared use of information and promote corporate business opportunities with public administration”.
The 100-million-euro project was completed on schedule and under budget.
It was a great success: whereas most projects of this magnitude fail, the 100-million-euro project was completed on schedule and under budget. What’s even more important, according to the independent assessment of the programme, it successfully triggered an extensive change in organisational culture across public administration towards more customer-oriented services.
Most likely a little push from and mutual learning with private companies has not hurt either.
Mix and match for synergy
The Finnish Digital Agency is headquartered in a modern red-brick building in eastern Helsinki, also hosting a variety of services by appointment. The first floor is where the magic happens – marriage ceremonies that is. More than half of the marriages in Finland are sealed in magistrates. The marriage premises in this location even have a sign saying “Rakkausvirasto”, Agency of Love.
On the third floor another kind of partnerships is enforced: the third floor of the building has been reserved for developers and other experts from partner companies such as Gofore to enhance mutual learning, communication and synergy between all teams.
The Finnish Digital Agency decided very early on that they want to have a strong ownership of the projects – accompanied by all the skills and knowhow required – but that they trust the coding and other heavy lifting to private partners. Because that’s where the best experts are.
“This allows us to build teams in which we mix experts from different companies, bringing us flexibility and security, as we are not dependent on one company,” says Janne Viskari, the Director General of the Finnish Digital Agency.
Strong public-private partnerships have also led to an exchange of knowledge and cultures, a win-win deal for the entire Finnish ICT sector. The public project owners have trained and guided their private partners in issues such as accessibility, data protection and information security.
“Whereas Gofore, for example, has brought us a lot of agile thinking,” says Chief Senior Specialist Jani Ruuskanen.
Strong public ownership combined with continuous private partnerships is quite unique to Finland, says Tuuli Pärenson, CEO for Gofore Estonia.
“I think it’s the future trend, and Finland is ahead of others.”
According to her, this is essential because the success of digital solutions depends not only on the technical solutions but also governments’ and cities’ skills and capabilities to run the systems.
“The trick is to learn to run digital solutions as services, not projects. It is a continuous journey.”
“The trick is to learn to run digital solutions as services, not projects.”
Of course, it helps that the country has a long track record of utilising digital services. In the 1990s, Finnish banks were forerunners in online banking. Even today, most of the digital services use the online bank user IDs as the form of identification.
But to get to the very roots of digital Finland we need to go further back in time.
From church records to cloud storages
In the early 1700th century, Finland was under Swedish rule. In 1627, King Gustavus Adolphus assigned a vicar called Isac Rothovious as the bishop of Turku, a western city that later became the first capital of Finland. Rothovious was not pleased to be sent to Turku – “among scorpions and barbarians” as he bluntly put it – and neither was he welcomed by the people.
Nevertheless, Rothovious had a significant impact on Finnish society and education – not least because he ordered vicars to keep records of births, marriages, and deaths. This rule was soon extended to the entire country. The church records of Sweden-Finland are among the oldest population records in Europe, kicking off the comprehensive digital registers of today.
Finland’s first population statistics date back to 1750, the first computer-based register to 1971. Whereas in many other countries the population data is still gathered from door to door if at all, in Finland the last census was held in 1989.
Today, all this information is in up-to-date online registers, making digital services possible in the first place. For example, when citizens move from one address to another, they only need to submit one notification of change of address that will reach all authorities and over hundred companies.
“One of the key requirements of good and efficient digital services is that there has to be registers with vast data, and this master data needs to be up-to-date, well maintained and securely accessed by organisations that have been given permission to use it”, says Harri Mansikkamäki from Gofore.
In Finland, most of the digital services have been built on a pool of different registers starting from population information and health records to trade and vehicle registers. Finland is also highly advanced in the usage of public cloud for the governmental services.
This data is then linked to digital identity – another prerequisite for good digital services, and a hot topic EU-wide as the union is planning to implement European digital identity, also referred as the European digital wallet.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a long legacy and culture of trust towards officials. There are many historical reasons why gathering population data is generally more accepted in Finland than, for example, in Germany where the population registration was used as a tool for Holocaust.
Hitting the X-Road
Other side of the coin with trust is that destroying it is easy. One data leakage or misuse easily erodes the trust in the entire system. This is also why data protection and security are key.
“Given the relevance of digital services for the society today, we cannot afford to risk this trust with any hit-or-miss experiments”, says Jani Ruuskanen.
Digital services require a functioning legal framework and regulation. From a more technical perspective, a secure and controlled way to transfer data between different registers and service providers is crucial. In Finland, this has been solved by building a national data exchange layer that is used by nearly 250 organisations from both public and private sectors. The data exchange layer allows officials to define very carefully who has access and to what data. This layer has been built on X-Road technology by Gofore.
X-Road technology, an open-source software that provides unified and secure data exchange between organisations, was originally developed by Estonia but has been customised for the local needs in Finland. The technology is now developed in cooperation under the Nordic Institute of Interoperability Solutions (NIIS), launched in 2013 by Finland and Estonia, and later joined by Iceland.
Yet another success story.
“I don’t know any other examples of governments cooperating in this way, building technological solutions that are in daily use. To put trust in cross-border cooperation in matters that could take the society down is quite extraordinary,” says Tuuli Pärenson.
“I don’t know any other examples of governments cooperating in this way.”
Estonia and Finland share many of the top spots in international rankings. The two northern countries may share similar digital architecture, but this technology has been put in place in entirely different circumstances: In Estonia, digitalisation happened from scratch after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 90s, whereas in Finland it has been a path of continuous improvement based on a long legacy. Both experiences are difficult to replicate, but they can provide valuable insights for those wanting to take the next steps on their own journey towards digitalisation.
Vive la digital révolution!
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. If the French revolution was the mother of European democracy with liberty, equality, and fraternity as its motto, what, then, could be the motto of digital revolution?
Perhaps security, equality, and transparency.
At least these are the three building blocks of trust, according to Harri Mansikkamäki from Gofore.
“First, security: the data needs to be stored and transferred in secure ways,” he says.
“Second, equality: the services must be available and accessible to everyone regardless of where they live or if they have limitations or handicaps,” he says.
This is something that has been the focus also in Denmark, country leading the way in public digital communications.
“When things are made digital by default, people become dependent on the system and need to know how to navigate it,” pointed Mathias Trier Reindel from the Danish Digital Agency in a recent event arranged by his Finnish colleagues. “This is crucial infrastructure, and it needs to fulfil its role and be easy to use.”
The digital revolution will be compromised if we can’t find ways to get also the digitally challenged on board.
According to the Finnish Digital Agency, last year over 4 million Finns logged into the public administration services with digital identity. This means that more than 90 percent of Finnish adults have the means and capability to utilise digital services.
Security, equality, and transparency are the three building blocks of trust.
Third building block, transparency, means that even if the digital services function automatically and are not visible, the process and decision-making behind them must be transparent, says Harri Mansikkamäki.
Values like trust can be difficult to commercialise or export, but according to Digital Ambassador Stefan Lindström, there are several Finnish companies that have been able to build products and services that are based on how the Finnish society functions, starting from education, and solutions for the home care of elderly.
Finnish companies are happy to provide their expertise also internationally. For example in the ongoing GovStack initiative by Estonia, Germany, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), Gofore was selected as a system integrator. The aim of this initiative is to create e-government solutions for countries in emerging markets to kickstart their digital transformation journey by adopting, deploying, and scaling digital services.
Be it a house or digital society, construction and renovating are always easier with someone who already knows the drill.