Learning from Sweden on Innovation in Public Services

Interreg North West Europe Better project study visit 27th October 2021

Learning from Gavle City Council, Sweden, winner of the Service Design Award for the best cultural change in the public sector in 2018

‘Courage, humility, innovation, tenacity and a focus on the end user are key ingredients when attempting to effect a change in the way things are done,’ says Marie Nilsson, Head of the Digitalisation Unit at Gavle City Council, Sweden, one of the transnational partners working on the Interreg NW Europe Project, Better.  Marie provided a fascinating insight into the award-winning Digital Renewal programme.  Amongst many positive outcomes (some examples are given below), the programme has also resulted in saving countless administration hours for council employees.  As a result, it has freed up social workers/ health care workers time to concentrate on delivering quality services to elderly and disabled residents. 

The approach adopted by Gavle Council in the Digital Renewal programme in 2016 was based on the Innovationsguiden (service design) methodology which champions a holistic approach to public sector challenges which focus on the end-user who helps inform the solution.  The six steps to achieving a good outcome are neatly illustrated in the below diagram.

Focusing on the end user perspective allows council employees to challenge their assumptions and see the problem from the perspective of the service recipient.

Finding the right solution is an iterative process requiring participants to test, evaluate and adapt until the best solution is brought forward.

The essence of the approach is encapsulated in the idea that digitalisation is not a technical issue.  Rather, it’s about the involvement of society, cultural and behavioural changes, business development, processes, change management, culture and leadership, says Marie Nilsson  By applying a try, fail, learn, try, succeed approach the council management team accepted that innovation requires risk tolerance in order to identify solutions. Sometimes the solutions come from outside the council through the collaboration with the Gavle Innovation Hubs who work with small and medium sized enterprises to provide technical solutions.  This has also facilitated the building of a new relationship ecosystem.

The success of the approach was demonstrated by the fact that the council has designed a 2-day Crash Course on the Digital Renewal programme for individual employees, free of charge funded by the council.  In the last 2 years, it has become mandatory training for all new managers in Gavle.

Relevance to Birmingham

The Innovationsguiden approach is helping to inform a new project in Birmingham funded through the West Midlands Innovation Programme and pulled together by the West Midlands Innovation Alliance in collaboration with Bruntwood Sci Tech Birmingham’s Innovation Campus called ‘Digital Innovation in Public Services’ or DIPS for short.  Birmingham City University (BCU) is also part of the project. The  BCU team is working with a number of service areas at Birmingham City Council including Adult Social Care, Planning, Transport 4 West Midlands, Digital and Customer Services to help define their challenges through a design led thinking approach inspired by the Innovationsguiden.  The challenges will then be advertised to small and medium sized technology companies who will be supported by the Serendip programme at Bruntwood Sci Tech Innovation Campus to develop prototype technological solutions which Birmingham City Council, the challenge owner, will then procure the solution through an innovative procurement process.  The results of the project should be known in September 2022.

Learning for Adult Social Care

The Gavle team applied the Digital Renewal programme to the adult social care team working with elderly residents.  The intervention resulted in saving countless administration hours for council employees, freeing up social workers/ health care workers time to concentrate on delivering quality services to elderly and disabled residents.  The implemented solutions included:

  • Digitised key management (digital locks) for 2,000 customers
  • Digital alarms around customers’ wrists
  • 20% of all-night inspections were carried out using night cameras as opposed to in person visits
  • Documentation, signing deviations are handled via a mobile phone home care app
  • Integrating home care and health care
  • The preparation for the broad introduction of online purchasing of food and pharmaceuticals
  • The implementation of a pilot ‘Homecare/Healthcare at a distance’ app.  This included a digital calendar with basic information including who was visiting, time for exercise, medication and online real time meetings, remote hydration measurements and pulse rate.
  • All care homes were supplied with internet access and VR experiences which were utilised with dementia patients and people with disabilities, yielding positive results. 

600 VR experiences were tested!

The overnight camera solution is not used in the UK and before its implementation in Sweden there were many debates about its legality.  The final decision in Sweden was that cameras are less intrusive than physically going into the room for night inspections. The VR experiment challenged some of the assumptions that were held regarding the elderly’s capacity for engaging with technology and the pilot won an award for the benefits it brought.  Birmingham care homes aren’t all equipped with internet access, but for those that have, it could be an incredible opportunity to pilot a VR experience.

Computer roll out in high school

Every pupil at high school in Sweden is eligible to borrow a laptop for the duration of their studies.  The original administration of the distribution required both parents to sign for the computer.  However, the agreement contained no legal teeth, just a promise to look after the computer.  The administration of this was very time consuming and used a lot of paper and ink.  The resulting solution was that the students became the signatory and they were able to provide an electronic signature via a QR code on a poster at school which could be affected on-the-spot.  The paper versions were never used again and the administration hours were cut by 50%.


The Digital Renewal programme acted as a catalyst for great change in Gavle Council, streamlining processes, saving time and freeing up front line staff to undertake more qualitative work with clients. Digitisation helped Gavle council save €1.5 million.  In 2016, the Digital Renewal team consisted of five people plus systems developers. By 2021, the team had expanded to 20 people, with additional systems developers.  The new approach to understanding end-users’ needs has resulted in better outcomes, money saved and happier clients.  The Birmingham DIPS project will start to yield results next year and it will be time to evaluate how successful the approach is in the Birmingham context.  Watch this space for future updates!

For further information, please contact:  Heather.Law@birmingham.gov.uk