In line with the digitalisation of the Nordic welfare states, the number of digital self-service solutions for citizens is increasing.

Digitalisation covers virtually every area of welfare, including social services, the education sector and healthcare services.

However, a large group of citizens has been forgotten in the digitalisation process.

Due to temporary, specific or changed circumstances, some citizens find it difficult to use digital self-service solutions.

A NordForsk-funded research project is now investigating how digitalisation should benefit all citizens.

“Citizens are often overlooked and forgotten in the digitalisation process of the welfare state. That’s why we want a digitalisation process that puts citizens at its core.”

Thus says Professor Brit Ross Winthereik from the Center for Digital Welfare at the IT University of Copenhagen. She leads the NordForsk-funded research project Infrastructures for partially digital citizens: Supporting informal welfare work in the digitized state” (SOS), which is a collaboration between the IT University (Denmark), the University of Agder (Norway), Gothenburg University (Sweden) and the Agency for Digital Government and the Office for Digital Inclusion in Denmark.

“And digital inclusion says a lot about what we’re interested in - namely the citizens who are excluded from contact with the state, as these citizens experience that digitalisation constitutes a barrier to that contact,” she says.

“The project researchers are investigating the ways in which this group of citizens actually does get help. Their hypothesis is that a large number of citizens make use of what the researchers call informal, digital assistance, provided by family members and organisations such as the Red Cross, digital help cafés and libraries. However, informal assistance is also provided by formal organisations when, for example, teachers, healthcare staff and Citizens’ Service Centres in Denmark go the extra mile for these citizens,” she says.

Changed circumstances can affect digital skills

In the SOS project, the researchers classify informal assistance in three different sectors: Primary schooling in Sweden, healthcare services in Norway, and the social sector in Denmark. According to the researchers, what’s missing is concrete knowledge about the circumstances which give rise to a need for assistance, as well as the costs of providing such assistance:

“The authorities would like to be able to quantify things, pick out certain people, and say that these individuals are digitally vulnerable and need to be included. However, one of the results we can already demonstrate is that exclusion and inclusion are determined by processes and life situations,” she says and gives an example:

“Perhaps you’ve been a capable employee or a fully independent citizen who now finds that a change in your circumstances is affecting your digital skills. Maybe you are affected by dementia, have suffered a concussion or feel stressed out. These are three things which can affect your ability to look at a screen. In and of itself, this doesn’t make you digitally vulnerable. However, it does mean that your ability to perform critical and essential actions in your life will be severely impaired for a period of time.”

In addition, Winthereik explains how there is a group of socially vulnerable citizens who aren’t necessarily digitally vulnerable. On the other hand, they may risk falling into that category when, for example, digital identification requires you to have a new iPhone, which not all families can afford.

“Our point is that instead of categorising people and claiming that older people have issues or that young people may not be as digitally savvy as we thought, we should instead look at these categories as being very flexible. That’s why we have to look at some situations to understand the depth and breadth of being digitally vulnerable.”

Project leader and professor at the Technical University of Denmark, Brit Ross Winthereik, and her research colleagues wish a greater focus on citizens in the digitization process. Photo: DTU

Digitalisation can create inequality

Another side effect of digitalisation is that it can inadvertently create inequality. Here, Brit Ross Winthereik cites an example from Norway, where a group of researchers is conducting fieldwork among immigrants who are in contact with the Norwegian healthcare services. The challenge for those immigrants is that the language and the digital user interface create barriers for them, as they must understand the professional medical language, the Norwegian language, and not least the digital language. The consequence has been that the immigrants largely seek online communication with the healthcare services in their home countries.

“So, it’s not that people in this group aren’t digital, because they actually use digital platforms to access the health services they need. But it can create inequality if digitalisation leads to barriers that are too high, which means that some citizens are worse off than others. However, we don’t know enough about this type of situation, which is why it’s important to make extra efforts to get to the bottom of it,” she explains.

Winthereik also says that the term “partly digital citizen” is a collective term for various vulnerable groups.

“The idea of the digital citizen is in a way more fiction than reality, because a very small number of people will be competent in their contact with the state in all circumstances and phases of life,” she says and uses the introduction of the so-called MitID as an example.

The project group behind "Infrastructures for partially digital citizens: Supporting informal welfare work in the digitized state (SOS)" compares and discusses observations from studies in the three countries. Photo: DTU

MitID is a common login solution for use with both private and public websites in Denmark, but according to Winthereik there is a vast number of testimonies from, say, senior doctors, lawyers and politicians who, from the perspective of a private individual, have found it very difficult to create their own MitID profile.

“Here you have a group of high-functioning members of society who’ve found it extremely challenging to start using MitID.

Finally, digitalisation can also create inequality in the education sector,” says Winthereik.

“In Sweden we’re seeing teachers use alternative platforms such as WhatsApp instead of official school platforms when they have to communicate with the students’ families or relatives. This means that even though there are official platforms for communication between the school and home, parents sometimes lose trust in them. This is either because they’re too complicated, or technical challenges arise, or there may have been leaks,” she explains and says that, in this way, actual communication takes place outside the established or official systems.

“In this case, also we can’t say that citizens aren’t digital or are sitting down and penning handwritten letters. It’s simply that communication isn’t happening in the officially authorised way,” says Winthereik, before rounding off:

“We’re working with digital inclusion through research, as we need a design for digital processes that resonates better with citizens’ everyday lives. And finally, we want a greater emphasis on citizens themselves, because public digitalisation is ultimately there to benefit them.”

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


Bodil Aurstad. Photo: NordForsk

Bodil Aurstad

Senior Adviser
Jakob Chortsen

Jakob Chortsen

Senior Communications Adviser