Digitalizing public administration – how can the transformation be successfully achieved?
The process of digitalization has picked up pace in public administration, not least due to the pandemic. Without doubt, the pandemic has mercilessly exposed shortcomings, such as at Germany’s “Digital Department of Health” (Digitales Gesundheitsamt). However, it has also shown very clearly that digitalization offers a huge opportunity to move modern public administration forward, gear it towards services and enhance its performance. The pandemic has also turned a spotlight on the fact that modernization in public administration is completely changing the requirements for public sector staff.
The aim – apps instead of appointments
Modern public authorities have a clear aim – citizens sitting at home and businesses should be able to deal with the authorities easily and conveniently. Whether applying for child benefit, re-registering a vehicle or claiming a pension, everything is to go online. By launching digital services, public authorities are hoping to finally deliver the efficient eGovernment that citizens and businesses have been looking for. Electronic services for citizens ought to provide the same user experience that customers enjoy on a day-to-day basis with eCommerce and online banking.
Whether or not that can be achieved depends largely on staff in the administrative offices and town halls. They are ultimately the people who will have to implement digitalization and bring eGovernment to life. They certainly have a lot to do, since digital processes carry on when they reach the authorities, whether that’s when involving all the relevant departments, making decisions or archiving. What’s more, there are no interruptions to the digital workflow and no paper in sight.
Three core principles contribute to the success of state-of-the-art public administration:
- One-stop shop
Several matters arising from the same life event (e.g. moving house or getting married) can be dealt with at the same time.
- Once-only principle
Data and documents from and for citizens or businesses are only logged or created once by the authorities and then, if necessary, are reused by other authorities (subject to the data protection interests of the persons involved).
- Digital by default
Digital communication and the electronic sharing of information and documents becomes standard between the authorities and their customers. However, that does not mean shutting down the traditional channels (e.g. face-to-face contact, mail). Data is processed electronically.
The benefits of state-of-the-art administration are obvious. Thanks to efficient processes, public authorities will remain fit for purpose into the future and the reduction in bureaucracy that businesses and citizens are looking for will also be accelerated.
State-of-the-art public administration – a long road
Experience has shown, however, that when it comes to modernizing the public sector, there is something of a chasm between the vision and reality. In Germany, the public sector is working feverishly on digitalization at all levels – in municipal, state and federal authorities. Government programs such as “Digital Administration 2020” (Digitale Verwaltung 2020), the Online Access Act (Onlinezugangsgesetz or OZG) and laws on eGovernment provide guidelines and create legal certainty. The federal government’s funding package, which is worth billions of euros, is providing additional impetus. However, despite every effort, the timetable may well need to be redrawn. It will not be possible to implement the OZG by the end of 2022 and, even after just under ten years, the core element of eGovernment – the e-file (E-Akte) – is still not being rolled out widely yet.
It is not just businesses and the general public who are critical of the sluggish progress in digitalization – senior public officials are also frustrated. This is illustrated in the “Zukunftspanel Staat & Verwaltung 2021”, a German public services survey conducted by the Centre for Digital Governance at the Hertie School and Wegweiser Research & Strategy GmbH. Only around 29 percent of respondents felt good progress had been made at municipal level, while just under 19 percent rated progress at federal level as positive.
The paradox is that, while many cities are expected to use cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence to transform themselves into smart cities, staff in many city authorities (and in other authorities, too) are battling with the operational details of digitalization.
Digital administration – what are the barriers to implementation?
There are many different reasons for this slow progress. However, you just need to take a closer look at the many public digitalization projects to see that the same obstacles crop up repeatedly.
- A restrictive legal framework such as data protection or the requirement for a written form.
- Different responsibilities and competing areas of competence or interest between departments and authorities as well as between the federal government, state governments and municipal authorities. For example, the OZG integrates municipal authorities into the design process only at certain points, even though it is cities and municipalities that have to offer and deliver the electronic services.
- Inadequate funding is still holding back progress, particularly at municipal level, as that is where the projects conceived by the federal and state authorities need to be implemented.
- The absence of binding standards and centralized solutions. Municipal authorities in particular have to struggle with a mishmash of disparate initiatives and a highly fragmented IT infrastructure.
- A lack of transparency and adaptability. In practice, there often simply aren’t any suitable platforms or standardized procedures for passing on applications and ensuring their subsequent use by other state governments and municipal authorities.
- Not having digital skills in place. IT specialists, project managers and employees with an aptitude for digital technologies are in short supply. For example, almost 60 percent of municipal authorities that responded to the KfW Municipal Panel 2020 survey indicated that they don’t have the digitalization expertise they need.
- Low levels of acceptance and not enough focus on users are the most frequent causes for the partial or complete failure of digitalization projects. Not enough attention is being paid to the needs of citizens, businesses and public sector staff. For example, complex analog processes are being replicated in every detail online instead of being simplified in line with digital opportunities.
The need for action – keep staff on board!
From a technical standpoint, there are already solutions to help drive forward the digital transformation of public authorities in Germany. Data centers can be consolidated and work is being done on shared or base technologies for eBilling, electronic inboxes and IT security, for example. Indeed, the OZG does not envisage each federal state developing its own solutions. Instead, work is being shared out under the principle of “one for all” (Eine für alle or EfA) and carried out in such a way that everyone can subsequently utilize the results.
All the same, when it comes to digital expertise and acceptance, it all comes down to the human factor. This is where a lot of work still needs to be done. After all, people have so far been rather overshadowed by technological and political issues. That’s not right! The aim of achieving state-of-the-art public administration and the changes it will bring are asking a lot of everyone who is involved.
Training boost for digital administration
Roles and familiar procedures are changing. Processes are being redesigned, and new technologies and modern methods are making inroads into public administration. For tasks to be consistently digital, an administrative process will need to be undertaken collaboratively in the future, and sometimes across different levels and organizational boundaries. Managers are having to work less as specialists and more as motivators, team builders and guides.
Interdisciplinary teams and agile methods of organization are central to the work of digital authorities. Silos need to be broken up and partner-based interaction established. In concrete terms, that means staff in specialist departments working hand in hand with IT staff, legal experts and data protection officers, for instance.
A lack of specialist staff and digital capabilities is ramping up the pressure. Given the age profile in public administration, staff in these organizations tend to be less comfortable with digital technology than private sector workers. What’s more, the wave of retirements among baby boomers doesn’t just mean the sector will hemorrhage around 60 percent of its workforce by 2040 – it will also see a huge amount of administrative know-how disappear!
Besides technology, a digital mindset is also crucial
How to successfully implement the e-file
One thing is for sure – if modern public administration is to succeed, public sector staff need to be critical of tried-and-tested structures and processes and turn their back on things that have long been familiar. However, a positive attitude toward digitalization is the foundation for a readiness to embrace change. Achieving that fully will require a carefully considered approach and advance planning for all measures. This is all the more relevant, given that a study has revealed that the mantra of “we’ve always done it this way” is a common refrain, not just in the private sector, but in the public sector, too. That’s why it is a good idea to take people, their needs and their fears seriously right from the start of any project and keep them in mind throughout the journey to digital administration.