28 March 2024

Municipalities and other authorities are increasingly required to digitalise their operations. But what are the implications for citizens and for how we build a digital society for all? These are questions that a new interdisciplinary research environment at Linköping University will look at.

Ida Lindgren and Elin Wihlborg.
Magnus Johansson

Elin Wihlborg, professor of political science, slowly pushes her shopping trolley in front of her. She is at Ica to shop, but is concentrated on the voice on her mobile phone. The call is important and cannot wait.

Large research grants are at stake.

At the other end of the phone is Ida Lindgren, senior associate professor of informatics. The discussion concerns a footnote in the application to the Swedish Research Council. The talks have been going on for weeks and text has been written and rewritten. Every wording can be significant.

I’m prepared to be scolded – change takes courage

In November 2023, it becomes clear that the efforts had yielded results. The Swedish Research Council gives them SEK 17.8 million to build a new research environment in Linköping. The mission is to delve into the consequences for society and citizens when public authorities are digitalised.

The interdisciplinary approach

“This gives us fantastic opportunities to create new things for a long time,” says Ida Lindgren, confessing that they ran through the corridors screaming with happiness.

The subject Informatics examines organisations' use of IT and how IT systems can be designed to enable them to achieve their goals. It draws knowledge from areas as diverse Ida Lindgren.This gives fantastic opportunities, says Ida Lingren. Photo credit Magnus Johansson as psychology, computer science and organisational theory. “The interdisciplinary approach is often a disadvantage when applying for research funding,” says Ida Lindgren.

But not this time. The new research environment will be distinctly interdisciplinary. Here, informaticians will cooperate with political scientists and economists, not only from Linköping but also from Mid Sweden University and Örebro University.

This collaboration stems from conclusions that Ida Lindgren and her colleagues have drawn after conducting case studies of digital services in Swedish municipalities and authorities. Politicians demand that authorities introduce digital tools to become more efficient and provide better service. This can apply to everything from the renewal of a driving license to the processing of income support.

“Digital technology can be used for a lot of good things, especially in the public sector. But things can also go wrong with the digitalisation projects, and this has happened lots of times,” she says.

One obstacle could be poor IT skills among employees and a high workload. Another is the laws governing public sector operations, such as the Local Government Act and legislation on secrecy and public access to information.

“We have repeatedly seen that legislation on how digitalisation can be applied in a Swedish municipality means that you cannot digitalise certain things,” says Ida Lindgren.

New ways to organise society

But political decisions and laws are not something that informaticians are experts at. Political scientists, like Elin Wihlborg, however are. She has done a lot of research on digitalisation in Sweden. As early as in 2000, she wrote her doctoral thesis on broadband rollout in rural municipalities.

Elin Wihlborg.I´m prepared to be scolded, Elin Wihlborg says. Photo credit Magnus Johansson The title was A solution looking for problems.

“It also highlighted the fact that much of the development is technology-driven. This is still the case, but today it’s AI that’s expected to solve all problems. The technology comes first and then you run around and ask: well, what are we going to do with this then?” she says.

But what researchers in the new research environment now want to focus on is not how digitalisation can be accelerated or how technology should be used in today’s public administration. Instead, they want to take a step back and investigate whether there are new ways to organise society in order to better harness technology and avoid new problems arising.

If so, at what level of society would this best be handled? The individual municipalities? Or at the national level? By which organisation? What does this mean for legislation? How do we protect justice and democracy?

Enormous demands

Digitalisation creates opportunities, but also challenges and problems. It makes citizens have higher expectations of speed and accessibility. But it also entails new risks of crimes, against the welfare system, for example. It places enormous demands on technical skills on the part of the authorities.

“It’s a challenge that a municipality like Ydre with just under 4000 inhabitants will have to fix the same things as Stockholm with almost a million inhabitants. The same demands are placed on information security, on digital platforms for elderly care and other things,” says Elin Wihlborg, pointing out that new organisational models are needed.

The results from the new research environment will be used in several ways. In the courses for students, obviously, and in courses for those working in public administration in countries receiving Swedish development aid, but not least, to provide our politicians with better knowledge to underpin their decisions.

There is of course a risk that the researchers may step on some toes. For example, you cannot question the far-reaching self-determination of Swedish municipalities without upsetting local politicians and officials.

“I’m prepared to be scolded – change takes courage,” says Elin Wihlborg, smiling.

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