Portrait of Jörn Christiansson ITU
Photo: IT University of Copenhagen

Libraries can help to increase public participation in digital welfare solutions

In a project funded by NordForsk, researchers want to carry out what they call an intervention in Nordic public libraries for the benefit of both service developers and vulnerable citizens.

“We know that weak groups are excluded from digitalisation because they find it difficult to use public digital services. That’s why it’s our goal to establish a new practice for the development of new and public digital services in which involves every group of the population.”

This is how Jörn Christiansson, Associate Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, begins our conversation about the NordForsk-funded research project Civic Agency in Public E-service innovation (CAPE), which he is the head of.

CAPE is a Nordic research collaboration between the IT University of Copenhagen, Aalborg University Copenhagen, Ballerup Library, Malmö University, Malmö City Library, Aalto University and the Helsinki City Library.

“There are several challenges associated with the digitalisation process, and research shows that the digitalisation of the public sector isn’t where it should be,” says Christiansson. One of the biggest problems is that digitalisation has largely excluded vulnerable citizens.

According to Christiansson, the reason is that the users haven’t been sufficiently involved in the development and design of the public services. So-called user research is often carried out by way of questionnaire surveys, although there is very rarely direct user involvement in the design process.

“In the Nordic Region, we actually have a long tradition of user involvement in the design process. But some of this has been lost, and therefore we wanted to build on this tradition and create a platform between vulnerable citizens and those developing the public services,” says Christiansson and elaborates on the basic idea behind CAPE:

“We’d like to identify what’s missing in the void between the digital service developers and vulnerable citizens. By identifying the shortcomings, you can offer service developers some concrete know-how that, in the long run, citizens will benefit from. Here, public libraries are seen as the perfect arena for the fact that they are open, public institutions with a strong tradition of user participation.

Libraries as an arena for intervention

More specifically, the research group is in the process of establishing so-called Civic Innovation Centres (CICs) at a number of public libraries, where citizens can help design improvements to public digital services and participate in the development of completely new e-services. By documenting and analysing activities in the centres, the researchers will describe the innovation process and establish best practices, which can be used to create a better understanding of how to increase user participation in public digitalisation projects.

“Specifically, we want to carry out what we call an intervention in the service design process, which we’ll carry out in the public libraries. Libraries are the perfect arenas for the development and improvement of digital services because they attract vulnerable citizens in particular. That’s why our vision, with the help of libraries, is to create lay the foundations for a fixed meeting place for users of public digital services and service developers,” says Christiansson.

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Workshop with IT helpdesk volunteers and the Danish Agency for Digitalisation on the new digital identification service MitID. Photo: Jörn Christiansson

One of the main reasons why libraries are so suitable for improving digital services isn’t only that they already have large existing networks, but also because a large part of the help available already exists in the public sector.

“Of course, vulnerable citizens already use existing services such as ‘Borgerservice’ in Denmark. But they also need a different type of assistance and more time to solve the tasks and challenges they encounter. A significant part of this support work is already carried out by volunteer IT support staff at the local libraries,” says Christiansson and explains that much of the assistance doesn’t just consist of technical assistance to solve a specific problem. It’s also about giving citizens an opportunity to learn.

However, according to Christiansson, this isn’t entirely without issues:

“In our research, we define the voluntary support function as a quasi-public service. By quasi-public, we mean that the service can be perceived as public as it’s offered in a library as a public institution, but that the library doesn’t necessarily have any formal responsibility for the quality of this service or assistance. The problem is precisely that the assistance is provided on a voluntary basis. From a user perspective, this assistance is excellent, and the volunteers have time and patience in a way that can’t be offered in Borgerservice. But formally speaking, the volunteers have no responsibility at all for offering this assistance and that’s why there are no guarantees that the service will be provided in the long term.”

However, according to Christiansson, the IT volunteers have a lot of experience, which is very valuable for developers of digital services. They know a lot about the needs of vulnerable citizens, as well as the elderly and other groups. Consequently, CAPE has taken the initiative to build a bridge between the IT volunteers and the Danish Agency for Digital Government to collaborate on MitID, the new personal identification system that has been rolled out in Denmark this year, and which many citizens have had great challenges in using.

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IT-Stuen is a volunteer-driven IT helpdesk at Ballerup Library, offering citizens help with digital services. Photo: Jörn Christiansson

Among other things, the co-operation has resulted in several workshops with software developers from the Danish Agency for Digital Government and the IT volunteers, during which the Agency for Digital Government informed the IT volunteers about the further development of MitID, while the IT volunteers spoke about the typical experiences and challenges that the vulnerable groups have faced.

“This platform for dialogue between the developers of the public sector and the voluntary assistance providers out there in the real world is, for me, the prototype of the kind of activities that we’d like to see unfold at the CICs that we’re in the process of establishing,” explains Christiansson and adds that one of CAPE’s overall goals is to increase civic action in the direct contact between citizens and the providers of public digital services.

“One of the more visible and concrete research results that we can already see is that the CICs will be able to contribute to the training of both the citizens who requested assistance, as well as the volunteers as they gradually become better at understanding needs. And it’s the knowledge they gain that we would of course like to share between the libraries in the Nordic Region. In other words, we could say that both the citizens and the IT volunteers are untapped resources that should be used when developing new digital services,” he continues.

Major advantages of Nordic co-operation

According to Christiansson, one of the advantages of the Nordic approach is the many similarities between Denmark, Sweden and Finland. For example, the demographics are quite similar, and the digitalisation process has taken place in largely parallel tracks. But there are also differences between the countries:

In Finland, IT support in the public sector is regulated by law, and you’re required to offer assistance to citizens, but this isn’t the case in Denmark. To that end, it makes good sense to examine and compare the issue in three different countries because you get a much richer picture and a broader research base.

“For example, Denmark was the world leader in public digitalisation in 2020. At the same time, we know that many people face major challenges with digital services. Between 17% and 22% are considered to be digitally vulnerable. In other words, a large group of vulnerable Danish citizens is excluded from digitalisation, as they have difficulty using public services.” Christiansson highlights another advantage of Nordic co-operation:

“If, with the help of CICs, we can create a permanent platform for the exchange of knowledge in the libraries which consists of the systematic collection of experiences from the IT volunteers and documentation of citizens’ needs, then there is significant potential for sharing these experiences across national borders on an ongoing basis,” he says, before concluding:

“Our vision is to bridge the digital divide that exists in the Nordic Region. That’s why we hope that the project will lead to a more concrete description of how to facilitate dialogue between service developers, the volunteer IT support staff and citizens in the libraries. In any case, our project has been very well received, and I think this is due to the very fact that the project recognises that there is a lack of citizen involvement.”

The project is a part of the NordForsk's Research and Innovation Programme on Digitalisation of the Public Sector.

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