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The data-driven welfare state 2: Key points from the conference

Digitalisation of the public sector and it’s influence on the values, ideals and institutions in the Danish welfare state was discussed across sectors at the conference ‘The Data-driven Welfare State II: Revolution, Reform or Value Status Quo’ at AIAS, Aarhus University, last week.

Photo credit: Søren Kjeldgaard.
Photo credit: Søren Kjeldgaard.
Photo credit: Søren Kjeldgaard.
Photo credit: Søren Kjeldgaard.
Photo credit: Søren Kjeldgaard.
Photo credit: Søren Kjeldgaard.

Sharing knowledge and experiences on data and digitalisation across institutions was the aim of the conference The data-driven welfare state II: Revolution, Reform or Value status Quo, organised by Cecilie Eriksen (AIAS-SHAPE fellow, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies) and Helene Friis Ratner (Associate Professor at Aarhus University and the ADD project) in a collaboration with SHAPE, the ADD - Algorithms, Data & Democracy project and the Danish Data Ethics Council.

Experts and researchers from universities, municipalities, NGOs and government agencies contributed throughout the day with their perspectives on how the rapid development of a digitalised public sector is changing the value landscape that has characterised the welfare society until now.

Organiser Cecilie Eriksen highlights three key points from the discussions at the conference:

In the digitised state, all citizens are digitally vulnerable

This digital vulnerability was displayed in e.g. Maj Nygaard-Christensen's (Associate Professor, Aarhus University) research on homeless people's and vulnerable drug users' paths to digital services; in Kirstine Zink Pedersen's (Associate Professor, CBS) and Anja Svejgaard Pors' (Associate Professor, Københavns Professionsskole) study on the consequences of a focus on data in the healthcare system for patients, and in the Danish Institute for Human Rights' report on 'Rights in the digital welfare state'.

“This research clearly shows how crucial it is that we realise that in the digitalised state all citizens are digitally vulnerable. Not just groups such as the sick, elderly and homeless," says organizer Cecilie Eriksen. "But it's obviously important that we also recognise that the latter are particularly vulnerable. Studies have shown that due to the problems created by digitalisation, many people give up getting the help they need and are entitled to. It's necessary to keep analogue doors open to people as well," she emphasises.

Digitalisation and the focus on the use of data is changing the value landscape of the welfare state

The Danish Parliamentary Ombudsmand, Niels Fenger, emphasised that it is a clear trend today that the state in several areas lives up to the ideals of reducing citizens' administrative burdens and serving them faster than it did previously. This can be seen, for example, at SKAT in connection with the preparation of the annual tax returns.

Niels Fenger also raised awareness of another important trend, namely the politicians' decision to make all legislation 'digitalisation-ready' is leading to a reduction in the criteria that can be used as a basis for case processing in the laws and a move away from the need for people to make concrete assessments.

 "Moving away from human, legal judgment to a narrower focus on the use of data and automation can affect the values and ideals that the welfare state promotes, such as 'treating equal cases equally,' and other values that cannot be realised to the same extent as before, such as care and privacy," says Cecilie Eriksen.

Several speakers highlighted that digitalisation often proves to be far more difficult than expected due to the complexity of the tasks performed by the public sector. Eik Møller (Municipal Director and Chairman of Komdir), Ulrik Røhl (Postdoc, CBS) and Irina Papazu (Associate Professor, DTU) emphasised the need for enhancing digital literacy, especially among politicians and public sector leaders. Leaders must be better equipped to lead digital transformations responsibly, so that they are driven by professional judgement and professional needs.

Digitalisation and the desire to use data is causing power shifts in Danish society that affect both the rule of law and democracy

Rasmus Grønved Nielsen (Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen) illustrated how the relationship between law and technology has been turned on its head in several cases, e.g.  when large-scale public digitisation projects turn out not to comply with the law, and politicians subsequently change the laws to make the system legal.

This movement is one of several cases of power shifting from the public to the private sector and from elected officials to tech companies. In this shift, it is the functionality of the IT systems, for example, that influences how the country's laws are shaped, rather than using a technology only if it can support fundamental principles of the rule of law, such as the right to a hearing, a counsel or an explanation.

Lisa Reutter (Postdoc, University of Copenhagen) highlighted the huge importance and value of data today, and that every aspect of how we organise the state shows that we are in the midst of a fundamental paradigm shift in public administration.


Cecilie Eriksen, AIAS-SHAPE fellow
E-mail: cee@au.dk
Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) &
Centre for Shaping Digital Citizenship (Shape)
Aarhus University