A study of the process of starting up a new company in Sweden from 2012 by Karlstad Business School described the situation before Verksamt was introduced as: “There were many ’stations’ for different issues and it was difficult to know in what order things were meant to be done. The information was dispersed and there was a risk of missing out on important pieces of information, which in turn could prolong the overall process of starting up a business.”
In 2006, the EU Directive 2006/123/EC on services in the internal market challenged EU governments to create innovative e-government solutions to support their business community in starting up, running and growing their home-grown companies. ‘Article 8(1) Member States shall ensure that all procedures and formalities relating to access to a service activity and to the exercise thereof may be easily completed, at a distance and by electronic means, through the relevant point of single contact and with the relevant competent authorities.’ The Swedish government responded by presenting a new aim in their 2007 budget of ‘making Sweden one of the world’s best countries to start and run a business. ‘The goal was to make it more profitable and less complicated for entrepreneurs to run a business’. Two years later, the Swedish government’s ‘Strategy for authorities’ work with e-administration’ (Strategi för myndigheternas arbete med e-förvaltning) was published. Simultaneously, there was a growing recognition amongst civil servants in The Swedish Companies Registration Office (Bolagsverket) and The Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) that services and processes had to be simplified and better aligned across agencies, which ultimately resulted in a new way of collaborative working amongst them. The aim was to create a website as a one-stop shop where all information and services from the Swedish agencies related to starting and running a business could be found. As the initiative grew, more agencies joined and in 2010 the website verksamt.se was launched.
“We are the State and yet we compete about a customer and don't deliver the service that they ask for, but just small portions of them. So our idea was to connect what was already in progress and make it more effective.”
The Verksamt.se portal is run by Tillväxtverket (The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth) and is the online link between business and the Swedish government, providing a single point for entrepreneurs and businesses to access e-services from four of the country’s public authorities:
- The Swedish Companies Registration Office (Bolagsverket) –handles registration of businesses, changes and closure of businesses, annual reports for companies limited by shares
- Statistics Sweden (Skatteverket) - deals with company registration, employer- and VAT registration in relation to starting up a business.
- The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) –promotes easier access to information and services for businesses and aims to simplify rules for business owners in collaboration with other authorities and organisations.
- The Swedish Public Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen) –provides information, advice and training in starting a business as well as some benefits to unemployed persons in relation to setting up a new business
The initiative was borne from a bottom-up approach started by groups of more junior civil servants who managed to get the buy-in from all of the Director Generals to start a new collaboration across all the relevant agencies.
Verksamt.se sits within the strategic framework of the Swedish government's action plan for eGovernment (Handlingplan för eFörvaltning). Besides providing information on setting up and running a business, the website also allows users to for example register a company, close a business or register a business for VAT through their e-identification using the sites’ different e-services.
The public impact
There has been a strong demand and uptake of the verksamt website’s services as shown by an increasing number of service requests from users. According to its own data on website traffic, the number on incoming requests to the website related to Statistics Sweden and The Swedish Companies Registration Office grew by 67.1 percent between 2011 and 2016, from 62,324 to 104,164.
Further, the number of companies in Sweden significantly grew in the year immediately after the verksamt website was formed compared to the previous 10 years. According to Statistics Sweden (Statistiska Centralbyrån), the number of companies in Sweden grew by 14.2 percent between 2010 and 2011.In the previous ten years, the increase in the number of companies from one year to the next had never exceeded 3.5 percent. However, is is possible that besides verksamt, other factors such as government actions and changes in the world economy may have influenced this growth.
In 2017, the verksamt website won the Web Service Award for ’Best website in Sweden’ in the ‘Social communication’ category, after having been nominated four times in previous years.[x] It is a competition based on the largest website survey in Sweden with replies from more than 126,000 visitors, gauging internet users’ opinions on the quality of Swedish businesses, authorities and other organisations’ websites.
This enhanced case study is part of our policymaker interview series. For the series, we talked to policymakers from across the world about their policies, policy-making and life in government. The interviewed protagonist for this case study is Daniel Sjöberg, Civil servant at The Swedish Companies Registration Office (Bolagsverket).
Written by Linnéa Larsson
Public Confidence Strong
Public confidence for the verksamt portal is strong, as evidenced by the website’s growing number of user requests previously described in the Public Impact section.
The public, and entrepreneurs particularly, were supportive of the idea of cutting red tape and making their lives easier. In an interview for Karlstad Business School, the restaurant owner Asmar Ziric who started his business prior to the verksamt initiative in 2006, said ‘At first I felt that I was being referred from one place [agency] to the next...’ Starting a business was more demanding than he first thought, and there were many stations in the process, especially when applying for the different authorisations needed. Today, he thinks it has become easier to start a business.
Stakeholder Engagement Good
Verksamt engaged several stakeholders to share expertise prior to the start of the initiative, such as academic researchers from Business schools, other public authorities and business leaders.
The initiative started with a pilot study where civil servants across the participating agencies jointly put together different data such as process maps, legal analyses and project ideas for how the agencies could work to promote more businesses. This pooling of information also involved consulting a variety of experts such as researchers in entrepreneurship at Business Schools.
Further, outside business leaders were involved to pinpoint any problems that should be addressed. "During the period of development many contacts and exchanges of experiences regarding verksamt.se have taken place both nationally and internationally, for example participation in conferences, formal and informal networking with other public authorities, similar projects etc. The exchange of experience will continue and is a very central part of building successful solutions."
Daniel Sjöberg further explained that there had also been a deliberate focus early on in the initiative to make use of expertise inside the agencies, in order to secure the buy-in from more senior officials.
Political Commitment Strong
The political commitment for the verksamt initiative was strong, as it was in line with the government’s ‘Strategy for authorities‘ work with e-administration‘ (Strategi för myndigheternas arbete med e-förvaltning), published the year before the portal was launched.
Verksamt was essentially a grassroot project, born out of the conviction of civil servants that the process of companies communicating with government was inefficient. “We were at the [government] exhibitions, fairs, promoting and telling people how to start a business. And in the next booth, the tax authority stood and said the same thing, except that they told that you start a company by filling out their tax forms etcetera. And yet in another booth, other agencies were talking about, "Oh, no, no. Before you fill in the forms and start a business, you should think about your business plan. And take into consideration other things like social security, business form, legal entity…So, it's a bit silly - we are the same entity, we are the state and yet we compete for a customer and don't deliver the service that they ask for. Just small portions. Just our little part of it. So we thought, "This is not good. This cannot go on”. We had to do something. And so we did.”
Clear Objectives Fair
The objectives of verksamt are not clearly stated on the website, however, verksamt’s target groups are clearly defined as ‘people who are thinking of starting a business as well as those who already have a business and need help with information related to running or developing it’.
In an article by Daniel Sjöberg, Civil servant at The Swedish Companies Registration Office (Bolagsverket) for the European Commission’s website, he stated the following broad objectives of verksamt:
- To promote Swedish economic growth.
- To ensure an entrepreneur-friendly climate.
- To increase the ease of doing business in Sweden.
During the development of verksamt, information from similar initiatives was collected at international conferences such as the e-Government Research Network workshop in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2007 and the European Charter for Small Enterprises in 2007 and 2008. Nationally, verksamt drew on the experiences from for example the PRIOS-project, where seven municipalities in the south of Sweden had developed e-services for entrepreneurs. This led to a joint pilot project aiming at connecting governmental and local services for entrepreneurs on the web. Evidence was also gathered by networking with public authorities, such as The Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems (Vinnova) who provided many important contacts such as practitioners and researchers involved in similar projects.
Funding was initially small, as verksamt rose from a grassroot project. ‘We had a [small] budget, initially for communication and marketing. So we were ready to use some of that to harmonise some materials between agencies.”
Today, the Swedish Companies Registration Office (Bolagsverket),The Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket), The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket and The Swedish Public Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen) share the funding of the portal. Verksamt.se has also been supported by the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems (Vinnova) through its “Innovative development of cross-boundary public e-services” programme.
In the four years before the verksamt initiative was launched, efforts were made by the Swedish government to ease their administrative and regulatory burden for businesses. Their action plan for 2006-2010 on how to simplify regulation in relation to businesses partly simplified existing rules and partly developed new, simpler rules. In relation to this, The Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation (Näringsdepartementet) presented 69 actions to simplify business regulation.
As verksamt was a grass-root project, not many staff were allocated to it initially and it started with only a small taskgroup. However, the initiative grew quickly and in 2009, 60 staff from across the three founding agencies (The Swedish Companies Registration Office (Bolagsverket), The Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) and the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) were working on the project.
Within the project of developing and implementing Verksamt, there were clearly defined roles of the different agency partners and a common project method. ‘All the decisions are taken in agreement by a project group formed by representatives from each public authority. To facilitate the decision making we have worked out a set of criteria that are important when it comes to prioritizing. We share a common project method and use web-based project planning tools that everyone has easy access to. The three director generals closely follows the work and have meetings 2-3 times a year.... A model for the jointly and continuous running and administration of verksamt.se has been developed based on research about effective commercial administrative models.’
There is a development team at The Swedish Companies Registration Office and The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth and each authority is in charge of its own e-services. Verksamt uses Liferay as portal tool to be able to connect services from different authorities., and The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth is the agency responsible for the content, design and functionality of the website.
The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) also do smaller user surveys and collect feedback from customer services and other feedback functions on the webpages on behalf of all verksamt partners. The information is then used to further improve the verksamt website and e-services. The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) also makes an analysis and compare with previous years to see which areas need to be improved.
Verksamt was explicitly designed as an alignment exercise that tried to join the work that different departments had been working on. “But [the existing initiatives] were islands. Our idea was to connect what was already in progress - make it effective and give it a chance to really deliver something. Because in my experience, then and even more now, there are a lot of initiatives and projects and reports and case studies. There have always been many, many good ideas. The tricky thing is to make something [out of these many ideas] and so we put out a plan to make that happen by short circuiting our own internal organisations.”
To align their services with their service users, Verksamt also performs smaller surveys about certain pages or information areas, as well as analyse their feedback and customer service functions where they receive many suggestions and ideas for improvement.
However, independent evaluation of Verksamt.se found that it was not used as widely by the regional authorities. “We got information from our interviews and workshop sessions that verksamt.se was not so well-known in the municipalities. To dig into this a bit deeper we conducted a fairly simple inquiry test. We used verksamt.se to send a business-related question ... For a dummy query raised through the portal, only one municipality replied in the legally correct format. In the test, municipalities responded within 72 hours to 4 weeks for the same query.”