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March 1, 2017

Building a Better Government Portal: Lessons from Denmark

Thought by Martin Kristensen, Denmark
Canal in Denmark

Martin Kristensen has spent much of his career working towards digitizing Danish government websites, including as Head Drupal Platform Architect at the City of Copenhagen. The following blog is inspired by a presentation given by Martin at conference in Berlin on digitalization in the public sector.

A 2015 EU survey rated Denmark as the most digitized country in the EU. As a Danish citizen who has worked extensively in bringing the government online this is of course a point of pride - as it should be. Digitizing government websites is a great investment of taxpayer dollars, and makes it easy and cost-effective for people to interact with the government.

The core of government digitization is helping citizens: not only providing information but automating the transactions that general citizenry needs. A good government portal can help people find doctors or dentists, fill out important paperwork around moving, or make it easy for citizens to get in contact with their government. The benefit of allowing citizens to perform self-service online is financially huge, as the table below shows.

Average cost-per-transaction* in Denmark:

  • In person: €10,30
  • Paper mail:  €9,87
  • Phone: €6,48
  • Email:  €8,92
  • Simple self service: €9,66
  • Advanced self service: €4,35-2,23

*Price based on calculations of both fixed and variable costs.

Looking at the numbers, it is crystal clear that digitization has a very important part to play in providing effective and cheap services within the public sector. At FFW, we’ve helped digitize a lot of government clients, both in Denmark and in the wider EU. Here are a few things that we’ve learned that can help any government agency looking to improve their digital presence and automate interactions online:

1. Understand your user journeys

In our work at FFW, we’ve found that there are oftentimes misconceptions in the public sector about the value of websites. We’ve found in the EU (and elsewhere) that government agencies frequently believe that public sector sites need to communicate a huge volume of information about various initiatives or political promises. However, when we dive into a government agency’s site analytics, we almost universally find that the vast majority of the traffic is focused on self-service offerings.

This kind of misconception isn’t surprising: these sites are politically owned, and politicians often want to prove they’re delivering on campaign promises and demonstrate the initiatives they’re working on. This is what makes it so important to define user journeys, look at analytics numbers, and draw some conclusions from that, rather than from the political world that these sites are based on. We’ve found that the best government sites don’t focus on politics, but rather provide a clear focus on self-service, as the vast majority of users would prefer to perform self-service actions on a government portal rather than going down to their local office.

2. Perform rapid prototyping

Oftentimes, we connect with our government clients at the end of a tender or RFP process. By this time, the client has generated a long list of items that they want or that they believe are the primary concerns for the site, and sometimes they even have ideas about the design.

This is why it’s so important to have data on the customer journey — and to provide rapid prototyping of the site. Numerous government agencies will simply pay for a large site to be built to their specifications, without testing that their assumptions are correct. Building sites according to an agile process gives our clients something that they can take, test, and make sure is the right solution. It prevents them from wasting valuable resources on a solution that ultimately doesn’t address the problem they’re trying to solve, and having rapid prototypes helps keep internal stakeholders aware of progress (and therefore happy).

3. Select a vendor with deep technical knowledge.

We know that many of our government clients already have huge digital infrastructures. They’ll have directories, document management systems, meeting systems and tools, and more. All these public systems need a home and a hub, and a good digital agency can integrate them into a portal that is useful both for the government and for its citizenry.

By applying some of the know-how that we have at FFW, we’re able to help our government clients build the right infrastructure and spend their resources in a way that makes sense for them as an organization. Building integrations means not only understanding how to make different systems talk to each other, but how to do so in a way that adds value to the end user by making online transactions easy.

4. Make sure you’re accessibility compliant

Many governments have strong rules about providing accessible websites. In Denmark, we have to comply with WCAG AAA  rules, which govern how code is written, how sites are optimized for screen readers or visually impaired visitors, and more. In the past few years, we’ve worked on enough Danish municipal government sites that we’ve become experts on the  rules — and we’ve found that it’s something that many agencies overlook. From making design choices that prioritize readability to ensuring that all our images are compatible with screen readers, we’ve found that the best way for a government portal to be compliant is to have awareness of the laws at every step in the design and implementation process.


Ultimately, building a public sector site isn’t just about serving a political entity or being a website for communications: it’s about providing a real, valuable service to citizens. The best way to make sure you’re meeting the needs of your organization and your citizenry is to follow the advice above: conduct user research, test prototypes, integrate your infrastructure, and be aware of accessibility challenges. The end goal of any government website isn’t just to have a completed platform, but to serve a huge variety of users as efficiently as possible.  

To learn more about turning government services into self-service transactions, or to find out about the services FFW can provide to you, please contact us. We’re happy to share our expertise about work in the public sector and beyond.


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