In the media

Break the bureaucracy

By Frederik Kaae

09 March 2022

Read the article in Danish here.

With the corona crisis under control and Denmark opening up more and more, it is clear that the economic consequences on the state's finances are significant. At the same time, the last election campaign was marked by politicians' promises of improvements in public welfare and service. It is therefore crystal clear that you need to get more out of the tax dollars provided to the state. And fortunately, the state has unique potential in terms of creating an even better framework for efficient operations and better solutions for the tasks it undertakes.

Unlike the private sector, the state "owns" the entire decision-making chain - from idea, through legislation to implementation and operation. This gives the state institutions a completely unique opportunity to create the framework for an efficient administration. That opportunity can be deployed significantly better than it is today.

But if the state is to create better welfare for less money, then it requires all professions to be involved to an even greater degree than today throughout the decision-making chain up to the operation itself. Changes must focus not only on the consequences for citizens, but also on how to support them most effectively with systems and how to manage those systems. When new ideas are put into practice, it usually happens on the basis of a relatively fixed process, which can be divided into six steps in a somewhat simplistic way:

1. The idea phase, where someone - the minister, the opposition, an interest group, etc. - get an idea. The idea is analysed by skilled officials with a focus on whatever is now important in the ministry in question.

2. The policy phase, where the idea is translated into a policy proposal with a political edge, which the minister presents.

3, In the negotiation phase, the parties in the Danish Parliament put their mark on the proposal before there is a majority for it. The final proposal therefore often contains a number of compromises and special considerations.

4. The law phase then begins, where the lawyers translate the political agreement into a detailed legal text. This phase includes various internal and external consultations before the legislation is adopted.

5. In the implementation phase, there will typically be an agency that is responsible for implementing the new legislation. This may mean new or changed processes, further training or recruitment of employees and change or new developments in IT support.

6. Finally, the idea is ready to become a reality in the operational phase. Now, however, the problems emerge. It is not always easy to either provide IT support or manage an idea that was born a long time ago. Nor does it always end up being supported or administered as intended.

The relatively divided decision-making process means that you only start thinking about IT support, implementation and administration for a new idea late in the process. And then it is often too late to change something if the otherwise excellent idea proves difficult, for example to provide IT support or realise in practice. This may be due to the need for special attention, the need to work with discretion if the legislation is based on data that is not of high quality, or requires complicated integrations that can make system support, work automation, case processing and control difficult.

The decision-making process also means that the systems and the administration are not always drawn up in accordance with the original intention. The possibilities for interpretation by system suppliers and caseworkers become too great, and there is a risk that the implementation ends up far from what the decision-makers actually wanted.

We have to work together from the beginning

The state owns the entire decision-making process, and the state can therefore ensure that decisions are politically, distributionally, legally, budgetary, systemically and operationally balanced. However, that requires that the decision-making process is more agile than it usually is today.

The inspiration for a more holistic decision-making process can come from approaches to IT. In IT, there has been a tradition of making large so-called waterfall-based project descriptions,  developed in phases in a classic supplier-executor relationship.

In recent years, more and more companies have started to use both design thinking and agile development. The advantages of design thinking are that you challenge your own assumptions and in that way identify the best possible way to solve a problem.

Design thinking is an innovative and end-user-centered methodological approach with a focus on understanding the user, the context of a given problem and the problem itself. Agile development has many benefits, including that different disciplines work together in teams and work together throughout the development process until a product is fully developed. Among others, the Danish Digitization Agency and Udbetaling Danmark have, in recent years, successfully used principles from design thinking.

When design thinking and agile principles are transferred to the state decision-making process, one can go even further. Therefore, we propose that one or more interdisciplinary project teams be put together across departments and agencies and beyond.

Using a so-called '360-degree perspective' from start to finish, it ensures that the ideas can be implemented, administered and get the right IT support, and that the idea is put into operation in accordance with the political intention and legislation.

This approach means that new ideas are reviewed from different angles, which gives a significantly better result. This will be a big challenge to common ways of working, and be a break with existing bureaucratic frameworks - but it will mean that all skills are used much better and that the finial legislation is higher quality.

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