Serving the Swedish Citizen
Infotech agency simplifies government processes from passport applications to electronic procurement
STOCKHOLM -- Carl XVI Gustaf may live in the castle in Sweden, but the citizen is king. Swedes have taken the concept of "service to the citizen" -- improving public programs to help individuals -- to new heights. Under Social Democratic government, for example, Swedish parents get 12-month paid maternity leaves and monthly stipends for each child, regardless of need. Information technology is the driving force behind many of these efforts.
"We expect more from our public services -- we expect them to be fast and relevant," said Soren Lindh, principal administrative officer at Statskontoret, the information technology advisory arm for the Swedish government.
Infotech is, in fact, forcing governmental change in the country. Computers are growing in popularity in Sweden: 60 percent of the adult population now uses one at home or at work. That's up from 35 percent in 1984 and 42 percent in 1989.
Statskontoret, a small, 150-person agency, serves as the catalyst for innovative infotech projects supported by the government. It also provides advice on broader technology issues such as privacy and freedom of information.
It takes just 48 hours to incorporate a business in Sweden, thanks to a system set up by Statskontoret. And citizens can get a passport in Sweden in six minutes, a shock to most Americans who must wait several weeks before the little blue book arrives in the mail.
Sweden's passport service, which is unmatched anywhere in the world, is available at 387 police stations throughout the country. Instead of providing a birth certificate, proof of identification is found through the electronic Swedish Population and Address Register, which lists vital information on the country's inhabitants.
The agency's work is about 10 percent technical and 90 percent organizational, Lindh said.
Statskontoret is now undergoing what is perhaps its greatest challenge -- creating a state-of-the-art electronic procurement system. It would eventually replace the paper-dominated structure now used by government agencies to buy and sell products and services. Federal and local government officials would be able to customize how they communicate with vendors using electronic data interchange, electronic mail and databases.
A school, for example, would use the system to purchase milk; a defense agency to buy weapons. The wheels on the project began turning in 1994; now IT partners are being sought. So far, Sweden's telecom monopoly Telia AB and the U.S. company Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas, which has a significant Swedish operation, have signed on as suppliers.
One goal for electronic procurement is eliminating the reams of paper that now make for an antiquated system. With the process more efficient, prices of products and services are expected to fall. Statskontoret also wants to use the program to spread information technology to small and medium-sized businesses to boost their competitiveness. The ease and access of the electronic system would also link Sweden more closely to other countries, which would enable and encourage Swedish companies to take part in European public procurement programs.
A broader hope is to encourage the public sector to become comfortable with electronic commerce so it will take off in the commercial market. The system will act as an electronic commerce education, said Karl-Erik Andersson, information technology strategist at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities. "This project will bring about a whole new way of working," said Jan Lundh, principal administrative officer at Statskontoret.
Working toward similar goals, the Clinton administration said it wants the U.S. federal government to use electronic procurement processes by Jan. 1, 1997.
Wiring procurement in Sweden is expected to save the government $1 billion over four years, according to Andersson, the leader of the project. Private suppliers also will save money, especially on transportation and communication costs, he said.
The system will be flexible, said Lindh, in order to attract people who would buy once a year, as well as three times an hour.
Much of the project will involve TCP/IP protocol. "The best way to distribute this information is through Internet and intranet," said Andersson.
But already there are major glitches. In Europe, it is illegal to send a business offer electronically. The European Union is looking to change that law. And people in Sweden, as anywhere else, are worried that automating processes will eliminate jobs.
"It will bring about a lot of change. There will be some reduction in personnel," admitted Andersson.
As with all of the agency's projects, once it is running, Statskontoret will relinquish control. "The point in a project like this is to do the groundwork," said Lindh. "That way the infrastructure will be stable, although the technology will change."