WRITTEN ON September 22nd, 2004 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Across the Board, What do we want?

One of the best presentations we ever saw on the culminating effect of comprehensively e-enabled government was from the head of statistics Finland, Pekka Myrskyla, shortly before he retired.

He showed an array of graphic slides based on data gathered from the Finnish national census. Finland now does the census every year, it takes hours rather than months, there’s ten times as much data and even so the cost of doing it is down 75%.

Instead of sending out forms or people with clipboards, the statistics office census computer simply interrogates the half-dozen official registers of businesses, people, dwellings etc and aggregates the data. This depends on having unique and comprehensive registers. Here Companies House has one for registered businesses in the UK and DVLA one vehicles but the idea of yet another one for people is a bit of an issue.

It seems pretty ideal to be able to measure the effects of government policies (say on job creation, commuting patterns etc) very quickly. Finland is very open with public information (FoI law dates back to 1766) it’s much clearer to people what’s really going on. And it’s good to cut the hassle and cost of doing a census.

But this approach does depend on having single sets of clean and accurate data, and that depends on people trusting goverment to hold their data safely and with proper respect for their dignity and rights.

It seems to me that lots of the things we’re trying to achieve (efficiency, better services etc) become possible when people are happy with government holding vastly rationalised databases. This prospect raises a lot of fears which are all too easy to justify, and certainly have not been effectively allayed.

So it would seem that the very first and most important step on the path to efficiency and better services is to ensure that everyone who asks can be convinced that when government holds sensitive data it is treated as highest priority that it be anonymised and encrypted, access and use heavily circumscribed, with harsh penalties for abuse.

Finland seems oddly different in many ways. People have to report to Maistratti (often located in police stations) to be registered once a year, but trust in government seems to be very high. It’s an open question to me – in our quest for ideal e-enabled public services, how like Finland do we want to become? After all, when the Gulf Stream stops we’ll have pretty much the same weather.

11 Responses to “How like Finland do we want to be?”

Hank Maus wrote on September 23rd, 2004 2:49 pm :

The crucial thing, for me, is not that we attempt to restrict the information Government can hold, but that we know what information it holds.

Sam Wells wrote on September 23rd, 2004 3:03 pm :

The crucial thing, for me, is not that we attempt to restrict the information Government can hold, but that we know what information it holds.

I daresay that most of the British public do not feel the same way. No one I know feels happy for the government to hold stacks of information – purchasing habits, library activities, etc – just as long as they know that the government is tracking it.

seamus o'blimey wrote on September 23rd, 2004 5:55 pm :

sounds like the Finns have built their gov. from the bottom up rather than top down…

Ella wrote on September 23rd, 2004 6:02 pm :

Re Hank’s comments, can I add another crucial thing: What the government does with the information:

e.g. whether the electoral register is used to identify potential tax payers or sold as a commercial mailing list makes areal difference to people putting their names on it.

Chris Lightfoot wrote on September 23rd, 2004 7:41 pm :

Any idea what the accuracy of the register is? I wouldn’t have thought that a register will be a very accurate way of doing a census, because there will be lots of reasons for people to avoid getting themselves on it (as with the proposed NIR, and with the electoral roll in the ’80s).

Tom Steinberg wrote on September 23rd, 2004 8:35 pm :

I think it is highly unlikely that the UK government will ever be able to increase trust the public has in it’s ability to hold and look after data. It will be impossible because nothing could be less of a good media story than “Government safeguards data successfully again”, and nothing could be more than “Man’s deepest secrets revealed by inland revenue”.

So, I think this question should be whether more unified datasets should exist whether people trust government or not. Cor – worra paternalist.

Kablenet wrote on September 23rd, 2004 8:46 pm :

In answer to Chris, I dont know the accuracy. I do understand people register once a year with Maistratti (?sp) or registration offices, which are generally the same as the police station. I also understand Finns are happy to provide police with details of mistresses etc as well as formal next of kin and so that in the event of any accident everyone can be informed. That’s trust!

Antti Leppänen wrote on September 24th, 2004 9:04 am :

I don’t know where the claim that Finns would have to report once a year at the police station comes, but it is definitely false. In the case of a removal, the address change needs to reported to the Population Register Centre, but that can be done by phone. It’s only the passport or an id card that needs to be applied at a police station.

What I’m not disputing is that the government does hold quite a lot of data on individuals and that the individuals do have a high trust on the government’s handling of that data…

William wrote on September 24th, 2004 12:06 pm :

Antti – can you help us some more? If we can get an expert view from Finland about what is good about how e-government is done there I think that would be some way ahead of where we are in the UK.

We’re interested in user experiences of convenience, openness, and why people trust the state with information. Also efficiency – less hassle and lower cost (tho I think lower tax is not one of the advantages Finland offers?)

Kable did work out that countries like Finland (also Denmark, Sweden and to a lesser extent the UK) spend 4 to 6 times as much per head of population on IT for public services as Mediterraenean EU countries like Greece and Portugal, which is interesting given that they all signed up to the same e-Europe 2005 targets.

Anyone who wants to be an author please email me for username and password. Thx

Watching Them, Watching Us wrote on September 24th, 2004 7:29 pm :

Does anybody within the UK Government or outside of it actually know just how much data is held on an individual citizen, across all Central Government Departments, Local Government, Agencies, Quangos, Police etc. ?

As I recall, a few years back, when the Canadian finance ministry proposed a large cross referenced record as the basis of some new system other, which was ultimately rejected, the figure of over 2000 pieces of information being held on each Canadian citizen was mentioned.

How can there be a realistic debate on strategies for e-government if the scope and magnitude of the exisiting data holdings by Government etc. on individual citizens is not actually known ?

How can the UK public be expected to trust “Big Brother” government with more personal information if it continues to operate in a Kafkaesque “faceless bureacrat” mode ?

N.B. anti-spam “captcha” codeword entry seems to get lost if one tries to Preview and then post a comment.

Olavi Köngäs wrote on September 28th, 2004 10:42 am :

Thanks for the entry. Antti Leppänen already corrected the one misunderstanding. There is no registration to police. Until 1989 or so every house owner had to report yearly who lives in the house but that practice was discontinued.

Benefits of eGov? Finnish government has been able to automate many traditional administrative duties of citizens. This is done by using the central databases and by collecting information from employers, banks, insurance companies etc. Administrative reporting from companies is common practice but in Finland this information may be used more effectively. The result is a very small number of C2G transactions per citizen per year. On the other hand companies have many reporting duties. For that Finnish agencies have developed electronic services and integration of administrative reporting into the ERP and HRM systems used in companies.

Accuracy? The central databases on population, companies, real estate etc are rather accurate. E.g. informing about change of address is made very simple – one phone call or web form and the Post Office and Population Register have the change and then it is available to e.g. tax administration.

Trust? A crucial question. The Finns are generally happy with tha way government acts as it makes life easier. Some agencies like Population Register and Central Pensions Register give on-line access so that you can see what information they have on you. The authentication is done with the web banking passwords or electronic ID card (PKI). In any case you always get a printout of your information free of charge if you ask for it.

Expenditure on ICT? In the central government some 5 – 6% of operational expenses is used in ICT. In some agencies the share is much higher. The municipal sector uses much less per employee but expenditure is growing especially in health care.