Norway leading in digitalization, but not everyone is benefitting

Elderly woman sitting on a couch with an open laptop and a paper form in front of her while talking on the phone.

Professor Rune Halvorsen and his research team have been studying the digitalization trend across Europe for several years. 

Halvorsen is the co-director for CEDIC, OsloMet’s Centre for the Study of Digitalization of Public Services and Citizenship.

"Digitalization has been a net positive and helped people access services," he states.

"However, different approaches to digitalization and different public responses to the systems that have been set up have resulted in large variations across Norway and Europe. Improving the situation will require a diverse set of policy tools."

Providing ease and accessibility

Governments across Europe are leaning into digitalization as a way to make it easier for citizens to access public services.

In Norway, everything from application forms, to grants, to welfare services are now available online through government websites and accessible through the universal BankID.

Digitizing these services not only makes them faster to use, but for many people it makes access possible.

Having these services online means that people do not have to take time out of their day to stand in lines. It means people can avoid the stigma of signing up for financial support in person.

It also gives people who are unable to travel because of disability or financial reasons the opportunity to sign up for government services without leaving their homes.

Norway in the lead

Compared to other European countries, Norway is a leader in the digitalization of welfare services.

As Halvorsen explains, “Norway scores high in terms of Internet connections and the availability and affordability of internet connected devices.”

Halvorsen’s research focuses on the key components that make it possible for people to access digital services:

In addition, Halvorsen says that being able to use these services is not just about access; public trust that government institutions have the population’s best interests at heart is just as important.

Many countries in Europe have similar widespread access to broadband services that make it easier for citizens to connect online and access their documents, but a generally high trust in the government among Norwegians sets Norway apart.

Widespread trust in government is a major reason that Norway leads in digitalization while countries like Germany, which has similar levels of access and competency, are further behind.

Digital divides

However, behind Norway's overall success lies significant variation in availability, usability, and accessibility of these services.

“Generally, I would say it is a positive thing that people have more information more easily available online, but it comes with a risk: some people find it more challenging or impossible to use the online version.”

Digitalization has been mostly successful and analog documents are being phased out, but some people are struggling to keep up.

Halvorsen says there are reasons to be concerned about these limitations.

Some people or groups of people will fall behind. This can reinforce existing social inequalities and even create new ones. – Rune Halvorsen

BankID: exemplar and source of frustration

The Norwegian identity verification application BankID exemplifies this duality. BankID facilitates access to virtually everything in Norway, from taxes to health records and even your mail.

But as anyone who has moved to Norway and struggled to get BankID can tell you, if you do not have a digital ID, or you struggle to use the app, or you are not online, trying to get basic services can be an exceptionally frustrating experience.

In such cases, people typically turn to relatives or friends for assistance, at the expense of their privacy.  

There is also the question of whether these digital services are truly accessible to members of minority groups, especially immigrants.

Even if a person has digital access, if the language is not easy to understand or if the text is very bureaucratic and difficult to comprehend, then people will not be able to use the service.  

This can mean that people in vulnerable positions – the ones that should benefit the most from digitalization of the welfare state services – will not be able to use it.

Even for native Norwegian speakers, it can be difficult to understand what many online forms are trying to communicate.  

Halvorsen says that the consequence of struggles navigating online forms is that many people end up preferring to seek help over the phone, especially if these services are very critical to them.

“They want to make sure they have actually understood the forms and make sure they do not make any errors.”

The idea is that digitalization would be time-saving and make it easier for case workers to help people with the more difficult cases, but the reality is not necessarily so straightforward. – Rune Halvorsen

Addressing the problem

Norway's main strategy to address these challenges is to promote digital skills through education and training for both young people and adults.

These initiatives aim to make it easier for individuals to navigate online services independently.

However, Halvorsen says it is not sufficient to focus only on strengthening digital literacy and skills sets among the general population and users of government services.

Policymakers also needs to focus on Universal Design requirements and support assistive technologies.

He mentions an often-cited statistic that approximately 600,000 individuals in Norway suffer from “digital exclusion”.

When people think of this issue, they typically only think of elderly citizens who struggle to use online services due to a lack of digital skills. This, Halvorsen warns, is an oversimplification.

“If you look behind the figures, you see large variations in people’s experiences in education, economic situation, impairments, or language.”

If policymakers only look at one aspect of the problem, they will not find effective solutions. Instead, he says we need a multidimensional strategy to improve the situation for the complex range of people who are falling behind.

Optimism mixed with skepticism

To understand why digitalization is effective in some places and not in others, Halvorsen relies on statistical data about internet access and accessibility requirements.

He and his team at CEDIC also work with local experts and people working in government.

Halvorsen argues that ensuring that digitalization of the welfare state works for everyone will require a combination of different policy measures: not only education and training in digital skills, but also effective promotion of universal design.

Despite the risks that some people are falling behind, Halvorsen still believes digitalization is a positive thing because information is more available and, for some people at least, it is easier to apply for things online.

Making digitalization truly useful and accessible to everyone requires a human-centred design mindset and a backup, analog solution to accommodate a diverse set of needs.

Digitalization has a potential to be something positive for Europe and for Norway, but we need to address the risks that come with the new technology. Looking ahead, I am both optimistic and skeptical. – Rune Halvorsen

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A research article from:
Faculty of Social Sciences (SAM)
Published: 26/06/2024
Last updated: 26/06/2024
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Johner Images / Johner / NTB