Mapped: the world’s best digital governments

Denmark tops the list, thanks to a law mandating that all citizens access public services online

Denmark has jumped from ninth to first place in the biennial UN E-Government Survey, a ranking of the world’s best-performing digital governments. The country of just 5.7 million people comes well ahead of larger economies like the US, which spent an estimated $103 billion on digital last year and failed to crack the top ten.

The UN report attributed Denmark’s quick turnaround to its progressive digital-first strategy, which makes it legally mandatory for citizens to access public services online.

The UN’s Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) collated data on 193 countries’ online services, digital infrastructure and citizens’ wellbeing to determine their score on the E-Government Development Index (EGDI). The index measures governments’ ability to deliver public services digitally.

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European nations dominate the top spots, and the Americas and Asia share near-equal standing. African countries are the lowest ranked, with an average EDGI score of 0.34.


Data: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Some nations famous for digital are on the decline. In the last two years, the UK fell from first place to third and Singapore from fourth to seventh.

Denmark’s latest digital strategy, introduced in 2016, mandates that all citizens must use public services online and receive email, rather than physical post, from the government. There are exemptions made for people who don’t understand Danish, have a disability or don’t own a computer.

The key to the strategy’s success, according to Rikke Zeberg, director of Denmark’s Agency for Digitisation, is coordination across the entirety of the public service.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s unique in Denmark: this cooperation between the local level and the national level,” said Zeberg. “This means that we can give citizens a digital public sector that’s comprehensive and that appears as one unit from the user’s perspective.”

By making the digital strategy a joint effort across different levels of government, municipalities with fewer resources can benefit from data infrastructure provided by national government. All governments have committed to the same goals and strategy, and all contribute financially, giving it the feeling of a shared venture. The total funding for the five-year plan across government is 372.3 million DKK (US$57.7 million).

“Governments at all levels are heavily interested in digital — it’s moved into the core of what we do everywhere”

“Governments at all levels are heavily interested in the digitisation agenda — it’s moved into the core of what we do everywhere,” said Zeberg.

Now, 91% of Danish citizens receive mail from government online — much higher than the 80% initially anticipated by government. This was accomplished with large-scale campaign and outreach programs, particularly to groups that may have difficulty accessing online services, like elderly and disability organisations, refugee networks and social housing groups.

The government also works with NGOs and grassroots organisations to organise digital training sessions to improve computer literacy.

The foundation of Denmark’s digital strategy is the use of digital IDs (called NemIDs), which allow residents to access both public and private services. With a NemID, you can file taxes, buy a phone plan, visit the doctor and even book an appointment with a hairdresser.

While digital IDs are not new — they have been used widely for years in countries like Estonia and India —  Danes can access more than 2,000 self-service options on the national citizen portal, Borger.dk, from changing a home address to enrolling a child in daycare.

These initiatives earned Denmark top marks for e-participation in the UN survey, and 92% of citizens said they were satisfied with Borger.dk in a national survey.

Moreover, the ease with which citizens can access government services boosts their trust in government. “It allows us to be more transparent, so it helps with citizen engagement,” said Zeberg, who cited that 83% of Danes trust government to handle their personal information.

“Our public sector is very complex. Digitisation has united it”

To retain that trust, the Danish government has focused on upgrading cybersecurity measures. “We’re well aware that we have to continuously live up to the trust confided in us,” said Zeberg.

According to the UN report, cybersecurity should be a key focus for governments bolstering their digital services. It points to the growing prevalence of ransomware attacks on governments, such as the 2017 WannaCry attack that disrupted hospitals and businesses in more than 150 countries. It recommends security measures be incorporated early, ideally during the design phase. UNDESA also suggests that governments focus on improving public servants’ digital literacy.

The next step for Denmark, Zeberg said, is delivering a smarter, more personalised user experience. The Agency for Digitisation has already begun testing targeted content: when a citizen nearing the age of retirement logs onto Borger.dk, for example, they will be shown planning options.

“Our public sector is very complex,” said Zeberg. “Digitisation has turned it into a more united one, where you can do almost anything from one digital portal.” —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Max Adulyanukosol)

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