At NordicBaltic.Tech, a partnership between PUBLIC Denmark and the Nordic Council of Ministers, we share the insights gained by those working to support citizens with innovative digital solutions during and beyond the crisis. Local government plays a pivotal role in ensuring that such digital services are implemented swiftly and effectively, paving the way to nationwide modernisation. We spoke to Nikolai Astrup, Minister of Local Government and Modernisation in Norway, to learn more about the role of both local government and tech startups in Norway’s response to Covid-19.  

What are the key challenges faced by local governments in Norway as a result of Covid-19? And how are digital technologies and data helping them to address them?

“The local government in Norway has a wide range of responsibilities, and Covid-19 has impacted all of them. The municipalities are making great efforts to combat the health consequences of Covid-19. At the same time, they strive to ensure that the citizens can receive the services they depend on every day. Among the many municipal responsibilities are:

  • Primary and lower secondary schools
  • Nurseries/kindergartens
  • Primary healthcare
  • Care for the elderly and disabled, social services
  • Local planning, agricultural issues, environmental issues, local roads, harbours
  • Water supply, sanitation and sewage management
  • Culture and business development

The municipalities and counties have used digital technologies to enable home-schooling to a very large degree. There has also been widespread use of video-/digital meetings.

The Local Government Act of 22nd of June 2018, section 11-7, states that all elected bodies in a municipality or county authority can hold meetings in a non-physical format. This allows meetings to be held on such platforms as Teams, Zoom, Skype or other systems where all the participants can see, hear and communicate with each other. For most elected bodies this has been possible for a while, but the new Act extends such use to all bodies and in all cases. This has been important to uphold the political process and keep these bodies functioning during the pandemic. If a political body has this kind of digital meeting, it is still important that the public’s right to attend and follow the meetings is not infringed upon. 

However, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and to meet the need for immediate use of remote meetings to avoid large gatherings, the Ministry of Local Government and Modernization issued a regulation that opened up for meetings where the participants could not see each other. The Ministry also opened for the possibility to hold digital meetings where the public were unable to follow the proceedings if the municipality or county authority did not have the technical infrastructure in place. The reason for this was that it was important to ensure that the public bodies could conduct meetings and handle cases. It was recommended that they publish the minutes of such meetings afterwards. 

There has been rapid introduction of new digital services which help to maintain the quality and access to public services despite the corona induced constraints. One example is the digital application for social welfare, which has quickly become available to citizens across the country in a very short time. The digital application relieves the burden on the social welfare offices at a time when they are under a lot of pressure, and saves the citizens the time they would have spent queueing at the offices, not to mention the issue of infection prevention.

The use of various health technologies that make it easier for people to master their own lives from home have had a significant increase since the outbreak of Covid-19. In the health sector, the use of daily video consultations between GPs and patients has increased 20 times. Many municipalities have introduced the national solution “DigiHelse” for communication between patients, local health services and relatives. Keeping track of Covid-19 cases and contacts is a key challenge, and local governments are making joint efforts with KS (The Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities) to establish a DHIS2 based solution. District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) is an open source, web-based health management information system (HMIS) platform.

The main goal of the municipalities has been to maintain teaching and learning abilities despite the measures which have been implemented, such as closed schools. Many municipalities have a good digital infrastructure, digitized teaching materials, and digital competence among teachers and pupils. Therefore, they have succeeded in maintaining an adequate service. At the same time, we recognize that there are considerable variations locally. It is a priority in most municipalities to maintain a good level of service for vulnerable students in need of extra care and attention, mainly through digital channels and services.”  

How can local governments work with startups to find the most innovative solutions to solve these challenges?

“Many municipalities, both small and large, are already working with startups to find good solutions to meet urgent needs. Many citizens are quarantined, or for other reasons prevented from going out. The Nyby mobile app connects those in need of help with volunteers who can help. Several municipalities have adopted this solution. Another example is the municipality of Sarpsborg, which established a digital youth club very quickly after the Covid-19 shutdown. The club organises lots of events which are very well attended. Many other municipalities have been inspired by them and have done the same. 

Volunteers from the tech and startup community in Norway organised and conducted a hackathon – the Hack the Crisis Norway, with only 8 days planning. 700 participants worked for 48 hours to find solutions that could help in the corona crisis, mentoring was set up in record time, and the municipal sector reported their needs through a digital portal. Now they are working in partnerships and are in dialogue with the policy makers to scale the solutions and establish sustainable business models. These kinds of models and collaborative constellations can be reused, and the expertise already exists in the market. 

The public sector can strategically use its purchasing power to look for new, innovative solutions from the private sector, and where the process may include startups to a greater extent. The national Supplier Development Program has long experience and expertise in establishing processes that facilitate this, and is an important tool for a strengthened focus on GovTech and SMBs.”  

How can local government build a positive digital legacy after Covid-19?

(Ref. first question)

“The municipalities and counties have used digital technologies to allow home-schooling to a very large degree. There’s also been widespread use of digital meetings for the municipal and county councils and other types of meetings. This is a legacy that can be built on, to enable digital schooling and education, meetings and other communication, when physical meetings aren’t possible or are unnecessary.

The municipal sector should as far as possible ensure that digital solutions and services that are being developed now, can be used by all municipalities. In addition, these services should, as far as possible, be supported by national and municipal common IT-solutions.

Local government can build a positive digital legacy after this crisis by managing the balance between two often contradictory goals – short term solutions against long term effect and efficiency. In practice this means building digital solutions and services that can be scaled and maintained in the long term, while they provide short term relief. An example of this is the use of DHIS2 solution, as a short term solution for the tracking of Covid-19 cases and contacts. Implementing this solution on the municipal common digital platform (FIKS) will enable local government to track and report on other epidemics, should they occur.

One experience we have had is that digital services developed as common solutions for municipalities – such as the social welfare application system and digitalised process for issuing a death certificate – can be introduced nationwide in a short period of time. But the real potential lies in the local innovation and transformation processes that follow new work processes and new ways of communicating, both with citizens and internally in the municipalities.

The Covid-19 crisis has forced many municipalities to use digital tools and services in order to pursue the objectives of digital education and learning, which they probably wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for the Covid pandemic. It is fair to say that the municipalities have gone through a lot of trial and error – processes which have resulted in a broad set of experiences which can be utilized in the future. A wide range of opportunities has been identified, adaptations have been implemented and competences have been obtained. Existing practices have been further developed and “put to work”. There are reasons to believe that patterns of cooperation, collaboration and training have changed to more timely and relevant way of doing this.

When things have calmed down, it may be necessary to spend some time getting an overview of, and evaluating the use of new digital solutions. Learn from what worked and didn’t work, plus pay attention to how they actually enabled the digitisation of initiatives and services.”  

How will the crisis change the use of digital technologies across the wider public sector and drive modernisation in Norway?

“The demanding situation we are in shows how valuable it is to have good digital solutions and well-functioning mobile and broadband networks to quickly solve new challenges.

In Norway we have mobile and broadband networks that are well prepared for the crisis we are in. This capacity is crucial when students have lessons online, many employees have home offices and social contact is done digitally.

The crisis has forced the public sector to cooperate more closely and to develop digital services at a rapid pace. I believe this close cooperation will be further developed and strengthened in the future. The cooperation also includes the private sector.

The national common IT-solutions are digital building blocks that are simple and easy to use and are used by the public sector, citizens and private sector. The common solutions have been used to develop digital services for the benefit of citizens and the private sector for years, and Covid-19 has given us greater expertise and insight in developing digital services faster (and probably better).

Thanks to national common solutions, such as Altinn and ID-porten, and the close cooperation between the public and private sectors, Norway has put in place a digital solution where companies affected by the corona crisis can apply for compensation in a matter of a few weeks.

Under the Covid-19 crisis, these common solutions proved to be essential to put in place several new digital solutions for citizens, for health care and the private sector. 

On the Altinn platform, many new digital services (10) have been developed for various sectors (healthcare, labor and welfare, finance and culture). Several of these digital services have potential for use even after Covid-19. 

The sense of urgency caused by the Covid-19 crisis, drives the adoption of digital technologies in several areas. Digital communications with video conferencing as the most prominent. There are also other changes that help modernize local government in Norway, like the above mentioned digital service for notification of deaths. A service planned before the crisis, accelerated and rolled out way earlier than originally planned due to the crisis.

Smittestopp” is an app that helps health authorities limit the spread of the coronavirus. Anonymized information obtained from the population movement pattern app can be used to implement effective infection control measures. 

Furthermore, I would like to add that the coverage of fixed and mobile broadband in Norway is very high by international comparison. We have a largely market based approach, in which private investment is the main driving force and where the government’s main role is to adopt policies and regulations which facilitate such investments. This approach has shown itself to be very successful.

The LTE (4G) coverage is close to 100 percent, and for fixed high capacity broadband (100 Mbit/s) it is close to 90 per cent. We will continue working to adopt policies and regulations that facilitate large, future investments in 5G, and further roll out of high capacity fixed broadband. Mobile operators have already launched 5G in Norway, and have announced plans for national 5G-deployment by 2023.

We are, however, also fully aware that in some areas of our sparsely populated country, there is little commercial basis for investments in broadband. Therefore, the Storting (parliament) has recently granted more funds over the state budget to broadband roll-out in such areas, and in 2020 a total of 406 million NOK have been distributed to the counties. This is a record high level.

The corona-crisis has led to both an increased use of broadband networks and a change in patterns of use, with more activity during day-time as a result of a larger share of the population working and studying from home. Close dialogue and cooperation between the Ministry, the regulator Nkom and the telecommunications companies, combined with solid efforts from the telecommunication companies themselves, has secured that the existing networks for fixed and mobile broadband have withstood the test and coped with the increase and change in traffic in a highly satisfactory manner.

The data center industry reports that the need for storing and processing of data has never been higher than during the corona-crisis. The industry reports that the data center actors have been well prepared through solid contingency/continuity plans, and that their operations are running as normal as could be expected in these challenging times.”  

How can local governments across the Nordic and Baltic region share best practice on the use of technology and develop a coordinated response to Covid-19? 

“Local governments in the Nordic region have learned from each other for years. We are convinced that this will also be the case for how they responded to the Covid-19, as well as for how things return to normal afterwards.

The Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS) is the organisation for all local governments in Norway. KS has, among other things, been given the responsibility for coordinating digitalisation in the municipal sector.

KS has offices in Brussels together with similar organisations in both Nordic and Baltic countries and cooperates closely with these. Municipalities in Norway often collaborate with European municipalities in specific digitalisation projects, but the results of these projects are to some extent also benefiting the entire sector. 

It may also be relevant to point to the recently established platform for sharing Covid-19-response solutions in the Nordic-Baltic region – https://nordicbaltic.tech/.”  

About Nikolai Astrup

Nikolai Astrup has served as Minister of Digitalisation in Norway since January 2019. He is a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. From January 2018 to January 2019, Astrup served as Minister of International Development.   Foto: Fotograf Sturlason/Utenriksdepartementet