• Opinion
  • October 11, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

Robots and redesign: How services can keep up with ageing populations

Opinion: The smartest solution may be to radically change existing processes

ageing population

This opinion piece was written by Janne Viskari, the Director General at Finland’s Population Register Centre. This year, he was featured as one of Apolitical’s 100 Most Influential People in Digital Government.


A large part of Europe is currently in a phase where birth rates are dropping compared to a few decades ago. At the same time, healthcare has improved significantly, and life expectancy has increased. In many countries, a considerably larger part of the population is retiring than entering the labour market.

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The change is enormous, not just for the citizen but also for the administration of public services. It is often the case that, for example, the need and demand for nursing services services increases as seniors make up a larger part of the population. We are looking at increased public healthcare expenditure, while at the same time, as many retire, the labour market shrinks, meaning less income tax is accumulated.

 In many countries, a considerably larger part of the population is retiring than entering the labour market

This two-way problem is challenging: public expenditure and need for services are growing at the same time as income is decreasing. How to react to this major — and growing — challenge is a political choice. Possible alternative responses include, for example, increasing the tax burden, decreasing the public service offering or charging for the services.

However, though laborious, the smartest solution might in fact be to radically change the existing operating methods and service processes. Service production can be made more effective in many ways, and losses included in service processes can be reduced using lean methods.

Redesigning services

In Finland, we have begun to do just that in many areas of government services. The National Land Survey, for example, has made the time it takes to register property titles 30% more effective just by reorganising the manual process. The workload of the institution’s officials has decreased simply by removing tasks that had no effect on the end result .

How did this happen? The Land Survey found out that during the registration process, there were periods in which applications just laid on desks for weeks without being handled. This meant registration processes for customers were long, and officers needed to start over studying the information in the applications, resulting in parallel work. The project to redesign the process was fairly simple: seven new options for ways to handle applications were tested with real customers for one month, and the best new registration process was then chosen.

Though laborious, the smartest solution might in fact be to radically change the existing operating methods and service processes

Similar ideas could be applied practically for any public services that require application, processing and decision phases. If hundreds of public processes were reorganised with the same efficiency savings of 30 %, that would mean a huge budget saving to help maintain current service provision levels.

Digital innovations

Digital service innovations can also help with ageing populations. For example, in Finland, the Population Register Centre has created a new digital authorisation service, connected to population register data. The service allows ageing people — or actually anybody — to authorise another citizen to use specific digital services on their behalf.

This allows their relatives to help them with online services, without either of them needing to be present at physical service points. Soon, it will even possible to authorise someone else to pick up your medicines with a prescription. This is useful especially if the older person lives in the countryside and the relative far away, quite common in Finland. Relatives could pick up the medicine from the town before driving to visit their parents or grandparents.

Robots and automation

Technology and robotics can, and should be, utilised too.

Commonly, public service providers ask citizen information, like home addresses, that they could easily fetch electronically from other agencies by themselves. And application processes for services are generally too standardised and inflexible, with citizens often asked information that is unnecessary and not even used for that particular service.

Furthermore, a majority of service events are routine-like and do not actually require a lot of manual processing or human deduction. These kinds of routine tasks should be automated. Pre-processing of practically any application forms could be done by robots. Robots could sort applications based on the probability of the approval, making it easier for the officers to swiftly handle applications that don’t require special consideration or further information — the majority of all applications are simple ones.

It’s critical that robots take up more work around administration of public services

Even if administrative decisions cannot legally be made without an official, decisions can still be pre-processed and prepared with robotics, in practice all the way until the final signature. This frees up the human processors’ time for more demanding tasks.

In Finland, it’s critical that robots take up more work around administration of public services. According to estimates, in the next 20 years 43% of people employed by Finnish municipalities and 54% of government officials will retire. Even though the timespan for this prognosis is long, the number of leaving employees is high. Replacing them with as many new employees would hardly even be possible — the ageing population means a smaller workforce.

Therefore, public development investments must now focus heavily on software, robotics, increasing the level of automation and artificial intelligence. When implementing them, it must be remembered that these are not ICT investments. They are investments in the preservation of a welfare state. — Janne Viskari

(Picture credit: Flickr/Marko)

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