socialnet - Das Netz für die Sozialwirtschaft

Country Portrait Denmark

02.06.2020    Anette Nielsen, Jørn Henrik Enevoldsen, Samuel Pedersen Jones

  1. Introduction
  2. The Danish Welfare system
  3. The Danish Welfare state today
    1. Health policy
    2. Senior citizen policies
    3. Labor market policy
    4. Flexicurity
  4. The welfare state in a historical perspective
  5. The Welfare state from the 1980’s onward
  6. State of theory and professional discourse of social work
    1. The relation between “the social” and “the scientific”
    2. Education and research within the field of social work in Denmark
    3. The organization of knowledge production in social work
    4. Digitalization, the Danish welfare state and social work
      1. A. Digitization and the Danish welfare state
      2. B. Digitization of the Danish Welfare State in a historical perspective
      3. C. Digitization and street-level bureaucracy
  7. Future challenges for the Danish Welfare state
  8. Literature
  9. Authors

The Danish Welfare State


The Danish welfare state has developed in interaction with the emergence of the Danish welfare society. Welfare societies can be described through the ‘Welfare triangle’ that shows how welfare support, funding and the provision of welfare services are located within either the market, civil society, and/or the state [1]. Any given society can be described and analyzed through the specific institutional arrangement set up to provide welfare services and how welfare provisions are located with relation to either the market, civil society, and/or the state. The Danish welfare society has developed through active state intervention where, for example, childcare largely has been funded through tax. Extensive childcare services have been secured by the state through the provision of daycare centers and nurseries made available to families with children. This particular social infrastructure has allowed for a high degree of female employment and high labor market participation rates. Typically, the exact distributions of responsibilities and interaction between the market, the civil society and the state vary within different areas of policy.

A characteristic of the Danish welfare state is consensus around the fundamental political values between the main political actors. Historically, attempts to alter the social infrastructure have been focused on changing specific policy areas, for example changing eligibility criteria for different types of benefits or attempting to introduce more market-driven competition into the production of welfare services, but the basic framework has not been radically altered. Political parties who have demanded more radical changes to the welfare state have not received significant support among the public.

The Danish welfare society is generally characterized by

  1. dual-breadwinner families with a high degree of female labor market participation
  2. The principle of individual rights that states that legal rights are primarily awarded to individuals rather than families - there exists no financial obligations between parents and children after the child has turned 18.
  3. benefits and welfare service are primarily funded through taxation.
  4. The Danish state for the most part provides public services.

The Danish Welfare system

The Danish welfare system is an example of the Nordic welfare model or the social democratic welfare regime, which is characterized by universal provision of welfare services. This means that benefits and services are individual legal rights that recipients are eligible for through their citizenship or legal residency. Examples of universal welfare services are education, The Students Grants and Loans Scheme (more commonly known as SU), healthcare services and family subsidy benefits. These benefits and services are universally accessible independent of income and family situation.

Another central pillar of the Danish Welfare system is the principle of individual rights, where social rights and benefits are individual rights held by citizens and legal residents independently of their family situation. Benefits that exemplify the principle is disability Pension (Førtidspension), early retirement pension (efterløn) as well as unemployment benefits through the unemployment insurance funds system [2] (dagpenge).

In addition to providing benefits and services the welfare system also funds the healthcare system and the running of hospitals. Likewise, the local municipalities fund the daycare system and the public-school system.

Parents are guaranteed access to daycare. All municipalities in Denmark are legally obliged to secure daycare for children who are older than 26 weeks. User fees apply, but municipalities cover 75% of the cost. Municipalities also provide funding for private daycare institutions. Childcare fees are dependent on parent income. Low-income families are charged at a reduced rate or in some instances receive daycare free of charge. 97,5% of all children between 3- and 5-years old attend daycare in Denmark. This family policy is often attributed the biggest role in the high female labor participation rate.

One of the defining characteristics of the Danish welfare society is the high labor force participation rate for both genders. In 2018 the labor force participation rate for men was 79% and 75,2% for women. The gender difference is mainly due to: women’s longer maternity leave, slightly earlier retirement and a lower participation rate among immigrant women. According to Statistics Denmark, 36,1% of employed women between 15 and 64 were in part-time employment in the first quarter of 2017, while that was only the case for 16,8% of the men in the same age group. Between 2012 and 2018 150.000 new jobs were created in Denmark, 44% of these required less than 20 hours of work per week (Arbejderbevægelsens erhvervsråd, 2018).

From 1975 to 2012 expenditure on health and social services increased from 25,2% to 33,7% of GDP. Compared with the other EU countries the Danish Welfare state spend proportionally more money on social services, that is expenses to social institutions to children, the elderly, people with disabilities, etc. For example, home care, daycare institutions and treatment of the sick (Hansen 2016, p. 519).

In 2012 the Danish welfare state, regions and local municipalities covered 78% of the cost of social services, including the cost of healthcare services. This makes the Danish welfare state number one among EU states as the primary source of revenue to social and health related expenses. Employers only contribute 12% of the social expenses (Hansen 2016, p. 518).

The Danish Welfare state today

The Danish welfare system will be introduced through a description of three specific policy areas: Health policy, senior citizen policies and labor market policy.

Health policy

The public sector in Denmark has a central role in regulating, managing, funding, and providing healthcare. The state has a central role in managing expenses and regulating the quality of the healthcare system. Denmark is divided into five elective administrative regions that are responsible for managing the hospitals within an overall framework provided by the state, as the regions are not allowed to tax citizens. The state also defines the overall framework for the placement and development of different medical specialties. The five regions are also responsible for psychiatric treatment and providing access to general practitioners, specialized treatment, and funding health insurance (sygesikring). If patients are not offered treatment within a month of being diagnosed (within certain areas of medicine), they can claim free treatment at a private hospital of their own choice (also in other regions) (Greve 2019, p. 173). All treatment is free of charge. Within the primary sector there is co-payment for prescription drugs.

The five regions together with local municipalities are responsible for securing the transition from hospitals to local care. Municipalities are responsible for preventive health initiatives and rehabilitation. For example, the municipalities provide preventive home care for people over the age of 75 and preventive physical training. Another part of the outreach work on a municipal level is provided by health visitors (nurses), who visit families after childbirth. This is a part of a national preventive program targeting children and their families. This is done to assess if any assistance is needed from the authorities. Municipal services are also provided free of charge for the families.

Regions and municipalities cooperate with the general practitioners in the primary sector. Regions negotiate collective bargaining agreements on pay and different health services with the general practitioners.

In 2017 health care expenses amounted to 182 billion kroner. This accounted for 16,4% of the total amount of public expenses and 8,4% of GDP (Jespersen and Greve 2019, p. 126). Compared with other EU-countries, expenses connected to treatment of diseases are comparatively low. In Denmark disease treatment expenses make up 21% of the social expenses, compared to an EU average of 30% (Hansen 2016, p. 516).

Senior citizen policies

The demographic development of an ageing population represents a challenge for most western welfare states. The social expenses connected to senior citizens amount to 43% of all social expenses in Denmark – by far the largest spending item. Age specific cash benefits amount to 61% of all government transfers and social services to the elderly amount to 17% of the total amount of social services provided by the state (Hansen 2016, p. 515).

There is no automatic connection between the number of senior citizens and public expenses on the elderly: Healthcare expenses depend on the general public health of the senior population. Public expenses towards state pensions depend on when citizens retire as well as the extent of private pension schemes. In the future taxation of pensions will become a significant source of state income for funding welfare services (Andersen & Hansen 2016, p. 518).

The so-called ‘Welfarecompromise’ (Velfærdsforliget) from 2006 sought to ‘secure the future’ for the state pension by incrementally raising the retirement age to 67 years by 2022. From 2025 the retirement age will follow the life expectancy for people in their sixties with an adjustment every five years. This entails, that as the Danish life expectancy increases, the age requirement for access to the state pension will also increase. This also means that the age for access to the early retirement scheme will increase step-by-step to 64 years and that the early retirement scheme is reduced if citizens have other pension income or wealth. The amount of early retirement recipients has subsequently decreased from 191.000 to 91.000 in 2013.

The state pension is still a central pillar in the Danish pension system. Together with housing benefit (boligydelse) and other benefits for retirees the state pension provides the highest minimum payment in the Nordic countries and almost completely eliminates poverty among the retirees, who receive the full state pension. However, an increasing amount of elderly do not receive the full state pension. The original universalistic approach shaping the Danish pension system has undergone moderate changes, so that the state pension is calculated in accordance with household income and supplemental income.

The Danish pension system is a three-tier system. It consists of the state pension, labor market retirement schemes and individual retirement schemes. Labor market retirement schemes have been introduced through collective bargaining agreements and the retirement payments have gradually gone up. Two-thirds of the pension contributions are paid by the employers and one third is paid by the employees. Labor market retirement schemes are still in the process of being fully phased in, but in the future a still larger share of wage earners will receive more from their labor retirement plan than the state pension when they retire from the labor market.

A larger share of people chooses to make their own individual retirement plan, which to some extent is tax deductible.

As previously described, the Danish pension system has branched out and become multilayered with more emphasis on the individual contribution. This development can be summed up as follows:

  • From primarily a one-tier system to a three-tier system.
  • From an almost entirely public system to a system with a very strong individual component.
  • From a tax-funded system, where current taxpayers fund retirees through the state pension to a strong personal savings system, where retirees to a larger extent are dependent on their own personal or labor market retirement savings.
  • From a primarily universal system to a system where all tax-funded benefits with exception of the state pension are means-tested through income and wealth.

Compared with other countries, Denmark is expected to have fewer economic problems with its ageing population. The share of elderly is growing at a slower pace than other countries and the retirement system is to a higher extent dependent on own savings through labor market retirement schemes and/or individual retirement schemes. Furthermore, the retirement age has been raised higher than in most other countries (Andersen og Hansen 2016, p. 331).

Services to senior citizens in Denmark are different from most other countries. Here it is universally free of charge to receive home care after a need’s assessment. However, from 2007 and onwards funding has been cut for such services and the share of people over 85, who receive help in their home has been falling. Half of all over 80 years old receive no home care. It has been debated whether this is a consequence of reduced funding or the senior citizens increasingly live healthier lives which in turn means that they maintain mobility and develop needs for assistance much later in life.

Although some argue that economic challenges regarding the ageing population have been sufficiently addressed in Denmark, there are still significant social challenges facing older citizens. Some groups of senior citizens struggle due to the physical nature of their work and are unlikely to be able to carry on until retirement age. Likewise, marginalization of senior citizens, who struggle to find employers that are willing to hire them, represent a significant challenge.

Labor market policy

In the past decades there has been a shift in the perception of the causes of unemployment. Previously unemployment was seen as insufficient structural demand for labor and goods, whereas today it is increasingly perceived as a problem with the available labor force. The unemployed are lacking relevant qualifications or not having incentives to work as because of generous unemployment benefits. The shift in the perception of unemployment has had a substantial impact on recent Danish labor market policies which have undergone significant changes during the last decades.

From 1990 and onwards there has been a shift from a passive to an active labor market policy, where the obligations of the unemployed have increased. Labor market policies are now managed at a municipal job center and much of what was previously considered to be within the field of social policy has been subsumed into labor market policy. This has been described as a move from welfare to workfare.

The Danish labor force has seen continuous labor market reforms since the early 00’s: all laws regulating benefits have been reformed, seven new types of benefits have been introduced and the categories for different types of unemployment have been revised twice. Furthermore, the system whereby the state economically reimburses local municipalities for different types of activities has also been changed two times (Andersen & Larsen 2018, p. 48).

In the 90’s what later has been called ‘The Active line’ (aktivlinjen) came to dominate the labor market policy in Denmark. During the 1990’s the perception of unemployment benefits shifted from being an insurance paid for through taxes and therefore a civic right should one loose one’s job - to a system of obligations where an ever-increasing set of demands are put to the unemployed in order to maintain eligibility for the benefit. The new demands are wide ranging: claimants are expected to apply for jobs in a larger geographical area disregarding their place of residence and education, they are required to join mandatory work activities (aktivering) with little or no relation to their particular skillset or professional experience. Finally, they can be required to participate in courses that have by some been criticized for being a waste of time. The active line has changed since its initial introduction in the early 90’s when the primary focus was social integration to in the 00’s moving towards disciplinary social measures and work-first principles. The primary focus became finding the quickest route back into employment, which led to changes in the availability assessments (rådighedsvurdering), increased use of sanctions and reduced monetary compensation for unemployed on cash assistant benefit (Christensen 2019, p. 76). Work first principles were meant to increase the focus on employment and lessen the attention to other social problems that the recipients of cash assistant benefit might have. Most of the unemployed were meant to receive their guidance and counseling at the local job center.

In 2009 the Danish labor market organizational structure was reformed. The previous two-tier system of the state organized self-insured unemployed and municipal employment efforts towards the uninsured and sick were combined in the municipal job center. Before this reform existing employment policies had been criticized.

The critique was very explicit in its ambition. “The system must be so made, that we can be certain, that the rules outlined by parliament are followed. No minister can live with being held to account for something, that he or she does not have any influence over. We need priorities to be aligned across central and local institutions.” Claus Hjort Frederiksen, (Minister of employment), d. 27 October 2003. (Larsen & Caswell, 2015, p. 14, our translation)

The government at the time was very discontent with, what they described as the systems’ lacking employment-focus and insufficient use of availability assessments and sanctioning of the unemployed.

The new one-tier system was introduced together with a series of initiatives to increase central control of municipal employment efforts. The reimbursement law [3] was changed to provide economic incentives for local municipalities to get unemployed into work and make greater use of certain types of employment activities, such as work placement (virksomhedspraktik). The use of work placements increased by 50% from 2009 to 2011. Furthermore, a more coordinated effort to monitor and benchmark municipality employment efforts were introduced together with a set of more standardized employment methods.

The job centers’ organizational responsibilities were divided into two subsections: one section primarily focused on assisting the unemployed in finding new jobs and another section supervising payments and sanctions. The employment focused section would provide the unemployed with a job counselor to oversee the individual case management, process claims, admission procedures [4] and monitor the progress of the individual unemployed. The benefits and sanctions’ focused section manage the payment of benefits to the unemployed and impose sanctions if the unemployed did not comply with the rules and requirements of the law. Unemployed citizens with other social problems would be advised to contact other parts of the municipal administration.

The reforms transformed a universal, unconditional, and partly passive social compensation system into a system characterized by active labor market policies.


The Danish flexicurity model provides a good example of how the different dimensions of the Danish welfare society interact. The Danish labor market is characterized by having a very low degree of job security; it is relatively easy to fire employees. This is believed to create a dynamic and highly mobile labor market. This has made it significantly easier for workers to enter the labor market, because employers are not constrained by long notice periods. However, traditionally the labor force was secured by a social security system with long entitlement periods and high wage replacement rates, this was particularly the case for the low-wage sector, if affected by unemployment. At the same time the system provided access to labor market courses, which gave the labor force access to new qualifications and educational capabilities. The state contributes both directly and indirectly to the funding of a significant part of the wage compensation schemes, which in turn has enabled it to implement regulations on availability assessments and mandatory work activities (Bengtsson 2015, p. 58).

It has been argued that the flexicurity model secures a high degree of labor flexibility, which has in turn contributed to growth and low unemployment. However, the model has been under increasing pressure the last decades. Cracks are appearing in the flexicurity model. The entitlement length has been reduced from four to two year and the wage replacement rate has been falling [5].

The welfare state in a historical perspective

The period from Second World War until the beginning of the 1980’s was characterized by the emergence and development of the universal welfare state. An extensive state pension system was gradually introduced up until 1964, where everybody independent of income and wealth were eligible to receive a state financed basic pension.

In 1961 the state took over the previously union organized mutual insurance health funds (sygekasser) and made them universally accessible to all employees insured in a mutual insurance health fund. At the same time all age- and health eligibility criteria were abandoned. In 1970 the mutual insurance health funds were fused with rehabilitation centers (revalideringscentre) and management was handed over to the municipalities.

The unemployment insurance funds were maintained. These are insurance schemes, where the members pay a membership fee, but the actual payouts are primarily funded by the state. After 1971 all qualifying periods (karensdage) were scrapped, the replacement rate of the unemployment benefit from the unemployment insurance fund was gradually increased so that they covered 90% of the income from the previous job. The maximum replacement rate was calculated to be 90% of an average income.

In 1964 the state instructed the municipalities to secure accessibility to the childcare and youth club institutions. In 1979 a universal child benefit was introduced. Single parents received a higher child benefit and children of retirees received a special child grant etc. (Bundesen 2016, p. 162).

The emergence of the universal welfare state meant that more and more benefits and services were made universal and independent of income and ‘needs-tests’. The public sector gained control of the production of many social- and health-related services and at the time also overtook much of the funding of these services (and benefits).

The Welfare state from the 1980’s onward

We have outlined recent developments of welfare state policies in the areas of labor market policies and senior citizen policies.

The general trajectory of these policy changes can be summed up as follows:

  • Economic incentive structures have taken the center stage in much policy development. This is observed in the labor market, as previously described, but also more recently in the area of family policy, where ‘family orders’ (forældrepålæg) can result in the reduction of the family subsidy (børnefamilieydelsen), if, for example, parents neglect to attend parents’ evenings at their local school.
  • A shift from ‘rights’ to ‘obligations’ when claiming benefits. This is particularly the case in the area of employment policies where claimants are required to participate in certain mandatory work activities in order to receive employment benefits. However, this is also observed in the increasing use of contracts and action plans (handleplaner), where wishes and demands are formulated on behalf of the citizen.
  • In conjunction with the second development, expectations to social clients have changed. More and more emphasis is placed on their ability to ‘take responsibility for themselves’. Citizens are for example increasingly expected to document their job seeking activities.
  • Increasing differentiation of citizens who are struggling with social problems. For example, if they lack the will and/or the ability to improve. The motivation of clients or the lack thereof has increasingly taken the center stage in much social work. At the same time, there has been a big increase in the different types of benefits, which has grown out of an ambition to target benefits to specific subgroups.
  • New Public Management has been widely applied throughout the public sector in an attempt manage and marketize welfare services. The ambition has been to control priorities and secure cost-effective production of social services. It has, however, been difficult to document the effects of marketization of social service and its ability to secure cost effective solutions.
  • Street-level bureaucrats have experienced a huge increase in demands for documentation of their work. Many control mechanisms have been introduced to monitor their work. This has been coupled with the spread of standardized social work methods and tools. Some of these dynamics will be describe in more details in the section on digitization.

State of theory and professional discourse of social work

To understand what characterizes the main theoretical and professional discourses of social work in Denmark, it is necessary to unfold the structures within which they take place both from a historical and current perspective, as well as understanding the organizations and social environments that shape and influence the knowledge surrounding social work.

The relation between “the social” and “the scientific”

Historically one of the central assumptions pushing forward scientific thought is that it is both desirable and possible for science to produce universally verifiable knowledge and general conceptual definitions of reason and a cause/effect logic (Elias 2009, i Christensen et al 2015). This is by many conceived as being too narrow and potentially problematic in the study of “the social” and more generally within the humanities, where the subject matter fluctuates and evolves in a non-linear manner. Scientific traditions manifest themselves in different subject matters and different perceptions of what constitutes the basic dimensions of humanity. This contrast has been described as the difference between the closed man (Homo Clausus) and the open man (Homo Aperti). The closed man is characterized by being independent from others with an independent capability to reason, whilst the open man is historically malleable and is constantly reshaped through interaction with the surrounding environment (Christensen et al 2015).

This has arguably manifested itself in Denmark both within the structure of the universities, but also in division of labor between universities and university colleges (at least in Denmark):

  • Universities, where more traditional understandings of science have dominated
  • University colleges (or professional colleges), where the degrees are exclusively focused on different professions (i.e. social workers, nurses etc.) and are responsible for ‘the social’

This can be contrasted to other parts of the world for example the UK, Australia, or Sweden, where social work is a university education.

Education and research within the field of social work in Denmark

In Denmark this means, that the social work qualification is a tertiary education, historically taught at the so called ‘The Social highschools’, together with other welfare professions, such as nurses, pedagogues etc. Today courses are taught at different university colleges around the country. Historically the ‘the social highschools’ did not have the right or obligation to conduct research. Today, research has become an integral part of the newly established university colleges.

The social worker education is characterized by a wide range of different academic disciplines. The Danish social work education contains four main fields: Law, social and political science, psychology, and social work (Each with at least a master’s degree). Courses on university colleges are taught by assistant professors (Adjunkt) and associate professors (Lektor). All the courses at the university college are thereby taught by teachers with a university background and with very different understandings of the ‘the social’.

One social education has been placed on a university – Aalborg University [6]. In the start 1990’ties the social highschool in Copenhagen founded a research unit that cooperated with Aalborg university. Together they launched a part-time master’s degree in social work.

In 1995 the first Ph. D in social work was accepted (Uggerhøj 2005).

Social work as an independent research field is therefore very young in Denmark. The research in this field is primarily conducted at the one university in Denmark with a Social work master’s degree. However, today all the university colleges conduct so called praxis-research. University colleges have a legal obligation to conduct research, but many of the research communities are relatively small and dependent on cooperation with the universities on bigger research projects. Research on University colleges must be relatable to a larger audience than the research community. According to the” Act on university colleges” [7] (own translation) §5:

  • “Profession high schools [8] will, based on its educational programs, undertake practical and application-oriented research and development activities in close cooperation with relevant actors on the labor market, other educational- and research institutions and the surrounding society.

    Section 2. The purpose of the research- and development activities is to provide new knowledge and concrete solutions to challenges within vocations and professions for which the college’s programs are aimed.” (own translation)

This means that university colleges also must develop and produce knowledge about praxis. Part of this knowledge consists of selecting and processing research for use in teaching and for qualifying social work practices, among other in cooperation with practitioners from the field.

The organization of knowledge production in social work

We have now briefly presented the key research communities on universities and on university colleges in Denmark attempting to further the development of research-based knowledge relevant to social work. However, their exists other key players in this field in Denmark.

Knowledge production in social work and the role of the social worker are closely linked to the construction of the welfare state in the 60s and 70s. To support the development of the welfare state, it was decided to supplement traditional university research with sector research institutions and in 1958 the Social Research Institute (SFI) was established (today VIVE). Later the Institute of Local Government (AKF) was founded (today merged with VIVE to the Danish Center for Social Science Research). The aim was to secure the state administration and politicians with research results, including the so called living conditions surveys. This type of research has thus been located somewhere between universities and state administration and has had a more direct role in policy development.

Developing new forms of knowledge in social work and about the role of the social worker is very closely linked to the emergence of the welfare state in the 60’s and the 70’s. To support the development of the welfare state, it was decided to supplement traditional university research with sector research institutions. In 1958 the Social Research Institute (SFI) (Later VIVE) and in 1975 Institute of Local Government studies(Today a part of VIVE). The aim of these institutions was to provide the central administration and politicians with quality research, for example research mapping the living conditions of different groups in Denmark. This type of research has thus been situated between traditional, independent university research and more policy-oriented research within the state administration. It has historically had a more direct impact on policy development.

These institutions contribute to producing knowledge and research, which is focused on the management and development of social work, so that it is as cost efficient as possible. New Public management (NPM) has been a dominating management philosophy in Denmark since the 1980’s.

Another central actor is The National board of social services especially when it comes to implementing policies and new social methods, establishing best practice and evaluating different policies. This is clearly stated on their webpage:

The National Board of Social Services works to obtain the best knowledge available of effective methods and practice within the field of social work, as well as communicating and distributing this knowledge to ensure its use in practice. This is done through comprehensive counseling of municipalities, the Danish Regions and individual citizens on questions related to social work and by supporting the municipalities when implementing social methods and practices. Furthermore, the National Board of Social Services manages the national audit function in terms of providing supervision in the social area to local authorities.

Furthermore, a last type of knowledge is generated within local municipal settings, where local politicians and the local administration might generate valuable insights into the field of social work. This knowledge is characterized by being highly dynamic and very dependent on particular organizational structures within which the knowledge is generated. Within these structures efficiency and an informed practice are key priorities in developing social work. Within this field knowledge is derived from experience and different learning spaces.

These different types of knowledge can be seen illustrated in this model:

illustration by Rasmussen, Christensen et al.

(Rasmussen I Christensen et al 2015, p 143, own translation)

Understanding these four types of knowledge is of crucial interest, when trying to comprehend the foundation for theoretical and professional debates in the field of social work.

The vertical axis contains education and research as one element and professional training and practice as the other. The ideal contained within this axis is the long-term accumulation of knowledge, qualification, and skills in social work. The aim here is to create the qualified social work. It is also within this dimension that a professional ethic is derived.

Here research seeks to understand the causes behind social problems. Furthermore, the research within this dimension seeks to explore how social problems evolve and develop and which types of social intervention are necessary to initiate to assist the affected group.

Theories and professional discourse are placed within a cross-disciplinary field and varying degrees of citizens involvement in the choice of intervention (Hart 2008), which in turn shapes how social work is performed in the everyday.

The horizontal axis represents the public institutions, who have the responsibility for enacting different types of social work. The ideal contained within this axis is focused on the short-term ability on how new insights can be used to transform social work now.

The horizontal axis encompasses three different professional discourses:

  1. The first discourse evolves around the development and implementation of evidence based social methodologies. The National Board of Social Services has been a primary force in funding such efforts. The approach is focused on developing social work methods that can be ‘scaled up’ so that ‘best practice’ can be shared across different organizational contexts. Developing new social work methodologies is done in cooperation with local municipalities and/or consultancy firms and university colleges.
  2. The second discourse evolves around importing evidence based social work methods from other countries. This has been done with the ‘The incredible years’ methodology (The incredible years, founded by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington), the ‘Signs of Safety’ approach (originates in Australia and was developed by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards) and finally Family Group conference (originally developed in New Zealand). These social work methods have often been patented and social workers therefore need to undergo a certification process to be able to make use of the method.
  3. The third discourse emerges from different municipalities involved in developing new social work methods. These local projects draw inspiration from both national and international social work methodologies but attempt to adjust them to their local context and their particular needs.

All three discourses have been shaped by efforts to manage and control the quality of social work, so that it is possible to document the effects of different interventions. Furthermore, the ambition has been to make complex social issues more manageable. The above-mentioned methods focus primarily in engaging parents in developing new childcare capabilities. These social work methodologies draw inspiration from Cognitive-behavioral theories and System theories.

Social work is therefore positioned between two competing perceptions of scientific knowledge: one perception that values objective, evidence based expert knowledge and another that is more driven by a more open-ended understanding of the production knowledge in the field of social work. The first perception has emerged (in Denmark at least) in conjunction with the introduction of New Public management. The second perception has older historical roots in the field of social work and draws from a wide range of scientific traditions: qualitative and discursive approaches being some of the most prevalent today (Christensen et al 2015).

These contesting perceptions of knowledge and science shape present-day debates about social work and the empirical foundation for its professional practice today.

Digitalization, the Danish welfare state and social work

A. Digitization and the Danish welfare state

The last thirty years Denmark has pursued a comprehensive digitization strategy and has consistently since 2014 been marked as number 1 regarding digitization in the European Union (Hjelholt & Schou 2017: 13). Behind this achievement lies three decades of work from successive Danish governments to implement and utilize new digital technologies. The following section will describe the historical developments in two separate periods: the first from 1993 until 2001, the second from 2001 until 2016. The chapter will conclude with a brief overview over key debates in Danish and international research about the impact of digitization on street-level bureaucracy.

B. Digitization of the Danish Welfare State in a historical perspective

From 1993 to 2001 the government’s digital policy was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology (Forsknings- og teknologiministeriet) (Hjelholt & Schou 2017: 57). The second period began in 2001, when digitalization was re-positioned [9] under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance, which later formed and directed the Agency of Digitization in 2011. Since 2017 and until present day (2019) digitization has received significant attention by parliament and government institutions. In 2018 the Danish parliament formulated a cross-party agreement that instructed that all new laws should be evaluated as to whether they were digital friendly. Digitization has become an integral part of the legal and political agenda.

Period I: 1993-2001 Digitalization under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology

E-government took off in the early nineties in Denmark (Jæger & Löfgren 2010: 254), albeit earlier forms of information technology, for example, the punch card, was already used in the early 20th century (Johansson 2004: 141).

In 1993 the Ministry of Finance handed over the responsibility for IT-developments to the newly established Ministry of Science and Technology (Forsknings- og teknologiministeriet). From then on information technology (IT) began to receive more political attention (Johansson 2004: 153). Inspired by other countries, the Danish government commissioned a report to outline the future role of IT in Denmark (Johansson 2004: 153). The report emphasized the importance of IT to future economic development and competitiveness (Johansson 2004: 153). Furthermore, the report outlined a whole range of areas where IT was thought to be of importance: IT should support democracy, improve public participation, serve the needs of marginalized groups etc. These broad societal goals distinguished the Danish government from other governments approaches to digitization in the early days of E-government (Johansson 2004: 152). The report also stressed that the Danish public sector should take a leading role in demonstrating how to productively use IT (Johansson 2004: 153).

In conjunction with the increased political attention a series of government and municipality-level IT-initiatives were launched (Johansson 2004: 157). Initial efforts were undertaken by multiple actors across different government and municipal institutions. Different types of ‘bottom-up’ experiments were pursued by different public institutions in the early period of digitization (Jæger & Löfgren 2010: 263).

Period II: 2001-2016 Digitalization under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance

In 2001 digitization was handed back to the Ministry of Finance and focus shifted towards efficiency (Johansson 2004: 165). During the 00’s digitization was primarily seen as a way of curtailing public expenditure (Jæger & Löfgren 2010: 267). Efficiency, flexibility, and quality became key words guiding the digitization process (Hjelholt & Schou 2017: 47-48).

In 2011 the Agency for Digitization was formed under the direction of the Ministry of Finance. The agency has a central coordinating role in the digitization process (Kjeldsen & Høybye-Mortensen 2019: 299). The agency later described its function as “a unified coordinator of the common public digitization and driver of the digital society of the future” (Digitaliseringsstyrelsen 2018: 3, quoted in Kjeldsen & Høybye-Mortesen 2019: 299, our translation). This fits the earlier described trajectory where the overall digitization process moved from a ‘decentralized’ and ‘governance’ directed process in the nineties to an increasingly centralized and controlled effort led by the Ministry of Finance (Jæger & Löfgren 2010). Economic efficiency and curtailing public expenditure through digitization are still cornerstones in the current public sectors’ overall digitization strategy (Kjeldsen & Høybe-Mortesen 2019: 299).

The following section will describe recent developments and themes that will be central to the debate on digitization and the future welfare state.

C. Digitization and street-level bureaucracy

This section will outline three core themes that have emerged in recent research with relevance to how digitization, mainly automation of processes, impacts street-level bureaucracy 1) digitization and the law 2) Digitization and organizational dynamics and 3) digitization and the future of social work.

I. Digitization and the law

Street-level bureaucracy is reshaped by digitization’s potential impact on legal standards. Both Professor Dr. Jur. Niels Fenger and Associate professor Hanne Motzfelt raise a series of questions about the consequences of digitization for current legal practice (Fenger 2013, Motzfeldt 2015). Especially two developments will shape how digitization will impact the legal practice among street-level bureaucrats. One concerns how the law itself is formulated to facilitate digitization, digital automation, and robotic process automation (RPA). Digitization in form of RPA raises new demands to legal texts and their degree of ‘mathematical’ precision (Fenger 2013: 30f). Mathematical precision in the sense that digital automation requires a set of objective criteria through which to review documents and/or application. SU, the Danish students Grants and loan scheme, is one example of a benefit, where automatization is used in the application review process (Hundebøl & Sørensen 2018: 7). Here the existing legal infrastructure easily lends itself to automatization, because the right to SU is determined by a set of objective criteria. This example illustrates how digitization depends on a certain legal infrastructure. The demands of digital automation might shape legal language used in new laws. Developments in this area are highly relevant to social workers in Denmark because they have some discretion to exercise legal authority.

This trend is observed in a very recent, but potentially very central development. In 2018 all the political parties reached a new political agreement that provides a framework to review the ‘digitization friendliness’ of new laws (Finansministeriet 2018). It was decided that all new legislative drafts should be reviewed in accordance with seven ‘digitalization friendly’ criteria [10]. The framework provides ministries with a series of checklists on how to review whether a legislative draft is ‘digital-friendly’ (Digitaliseirngsstyrelsen 2018). Legislative drafts are reviewed by the ‘Secretariat for Digital-ready legislation’, which screen how digital-ready legislation drafts are and assess issues with the regard to future implementation [11]. This political agreement might signal a significant shift in the legal infrastructure of the welfare state. However, the political agreement is too new to evaluate the impact on new legislation. Furthermore, the legislative guide also stipulates that certain types of legal decisions do not readily lend themselves to objective criteria (Digitaliseringsstyrelsen 2018: 12). Future research will need to evaluate the implementation and impact the agreement has had on new laws.

Another area of specific interest to the legal practice among street-level bureaucrats is how the general procedural demands of the law interact with new digital developments (Motzfeldt 2015: 8). The digital infrastructure now servicing many street-level bureaucrats potentially re-shapes how the law regulates the interaction with citizens. Danish citizens have a series of procedural rights; the right to be consulted (partshøring), the right to be involved in proceedings (medvirkenskravet), the right to guidance to a name just a few. If for example a citizen case is reviewed through an RPA, social workers (and other street-level bureaucrats) are not able to honor a more holistic approach as stipulated in social law, because they are not in direct contact with the citizens face-to-face. How these rights interact with digitization and automatization is of key interest to future street-level bureaucrats because it will potentially change the interaction between citizens and the welfare state.

II. Digitization and organizational dynamics

Another emerging debate with relevance to street-level bureaucrats is the impact of digitization on organizational dynamics and hierarchies. Digitization will potentially introduce a new class of data-analysts, which are situated between leadership and social workers (Pedersen & Wilkinson 2018). Potentially challenging the existing chain of command and the existing division of labor. One study suggests that data-driven decision-making produces a series of different organizational challenges (Høebye-Mortensen & Ejbye-Ernst 2018). Two challenges will very briefly be introduced:

1) The production and management of data

2) The use and interpretation of data.

The study showed that: “the ones feeding data in (caseworkers) and aggregating them (admin staff) are not the same persons as the one who uses them (managers).” (Høebye-Mortensen & Ejbye-Ernst 2018: 32). Organizational structures mediate and transform the collected data, because each actor has different perceptions of the role of data. Administrative staff might therefore have a completely different take on the organizational importance of data than the caseworkers who collects the data. Furthermore, managers might misinterpret the reliability and/or validity of the collected data, if they lack an in depth understanding of the collection of data by caseworkers and the processing of data by administrative workers. The production of data and the introduction of data-driven management introduce new organizational dynamics. Dynamics which deserve more attention in future research.

III. Digitization and the future of social work

Digitization will impact social work in a wide range of areas. Some argue that digitization allows data-driven management (DDM) to such an extent that it under certain conditions will replace the tacit knowledge provided by professionals (Pedersen & Wilkinson 2018: 7). Tacit knowledge has previously been seen as a central characteristic of social work. If this dimension is somewhat pushed out by digitalization, then the professional self-perception of the role of social workers might be altered radically. However, attempts to automat certain elements in the family service in the united states show that existing IT-assessment tools come with serious challenges (Eubanks 2017). Digital assessment tools might  shape the social workers perception of a certain type of problem in certain directions. This is potentially very problematic, if the programs criteria for that assessment remain opaque for the social worker. If the program assessed problems through statistical patterns, it might also end up reproducing pre-existing disparities or be based on biased perceptions in society (O’Neil 2017).

Another central debate concerns the limits of automatization. While this is partly also a politically and legal question because much automation also is dependent on a certain legal infrastructure as previously described. However, even in instances, where the law easily should lend itself to automatization, humans are needed to create and monitor the program. In some instance caseworkers or administrative personnel might be the fallback option, when the program lacks information or for some reason is not able to process the claim. A study of an already automated decision-making tool used to assess, whether students are eligible for SU [12] demonstrated that administrative workers were needed as a supplement to the automated program, because it made mistakes or could not understand a specific type of situation or information (Hundebøl & Sørensen 2018). So although RPA will most likely replace some tiresome administrative work, it will probably in many instances still need to be monitored and supplemented by administrative staff.

Finally, the efforts in Denmark to increasingly make public services and application available through internet platforms has come with a considerable price. Many vulnerable groups have significantly difficulties accessing and navigating on the public platforms available on the internet. One research project found that many needed assistances from caseworkers (Hjelholt & Schou 2017). Caseworkers might have to navigate new dividing lines between those who have the necessary access and skills – and those who find this brave new world of digital platforms challenging and stressful.

The impact of digitization on social work depends on a wide variety of political, legal, organizational and technical factors. The central question then becomes who can shape the creation, designing and implementation of the digital infrastructure within the welfare state? This is a central question, because different actors will view the value of a new digital infrastructure in very different ways.

Future challenges for the Danish Welfare state

The Danish Welfare state has to face several challenges in the future. We have described some arenas of potential political contention for the future welfare state in Denmark.


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Annette NielsenAnette Nielsen
Associate professor, UC SYD, Denmark
Educational background: Social worker and Master in Social Integration, Aarhus University
+4572662512, mobil: 45 72662518,

Jørn Henrik EnevoldsenJørn Henrik Enevoldsen
Associate professor, UC SYD. Denmark
Educationel background: Cand.scient.pol., Aarhus University
Telefon: +45 7266 2950

Samuel Pedersen Jones
Associate professor, UC SYD
Educational background: cand.scient.soc, Copenhagen University
Telefon: +45 7266 2970


[1] In Denmark the public sector can be divided into three sectors: a state sector, a regional sector and a municipality sector.

[2] This system allows employed and student to voluntary join a state recognized unemployment insurance fund (A-kasse). This entitled you for at least two years of unemployment benefit (and under certain condition you can get up to three years). This benefit is independent of family wealth.

[3] The reimbursement law regulates how municipalities are subsidies by the state through different economic incentive structures.

[4] The chosen activity might be a municipal organized activity, or it might be provided by an external partner.

[5] Læs mere om den danske flexicurity model i: Bengtsson, Tea m.fl. (2015). The Danish Welfare State A Sociological Investigation. Palgrave Macmillan.

[6] Historically there has been two social work degrees placed within a university setting, but one of the two degrees was closed in the 1980’ties.

[7] “Bekendtgørelse af lov om professionshøjskoler”

[8] What in the text has been referred to as University Colleges.

[9] Prior to 1993 the Ministry of Finance had supervised digital policies.

[10] 1) Simple, clear rules. 2) Digital communication 3) Possibility of automated case processing 4) Consistency across authorities – uniform concepts and reuse of data 5) Safe and secure data handling 6) Use of public infrastructure 7) Prevention of fraud and errors (Agreement on digital-ready legislation 2018)


[12] SU – The Danish Students’s Grants and loans scheme. From 18 and up everybody studying in Denmark is entitled to public support.

Cite this publication
Nielsen, Anette, Jørn Henrik Enevoldsen and Samuel Pedersen Jones, 2020. Country Portrait Denmark. In: socialnet International [online]. 02.06.2020 [Date of citation: 21.09.2020]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet:

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