Three steps to digital public administration

Effective rules, staff investment and communication of benefits are key, says Gerhard Hammerschmid.

When it comes to e-governance, the gap between dream and reality is enormous: programme after programme is implemented, yet the work required for the transition to digitalisation keeps piling up. Germany ranks 20 out of 28 countries in the category Digital Public Services  in the EU’s The Digital Economy and Society Index for 2017. In addition, eGovernment MONITOR paints a similarly critical picture of the current situation. The good news, however, is that people seem to have recognised the need for action. In the nationwide public administration survey conducted by the Hertie School and Wegweiser Research & Strategy (Zukunftspanel Staat und Verwaltung 2017), leaders in the field identified digitalisation, e-governance and IT security as the primary challenges for administrators over the next five years.

Almost all political parties addressed digital public administration in their election campaigns. The CDU/CSU and FDP were particularly engaged, presenting sophisticated concepts of a unified online portal in which all public services could be accessed digitally. The underlying idea is to creation secure user accounts where citizens would only have to enter their details once (the once-only principle). Even the European Commission is putting pressure on countries to move toward digitalising their public services by 2020. Conditions for the digitalisation of public administration have never been this good. In order to make the most of this window of opportunity, we need to address barriers to progress in a systematic way. Building on the survey’s results, we should be emphasising the development of relevant governance structures and investments in staff and management, as well as strengthening our focus on related success stories and improvements.

1. No digital public administration without an effective governance structure

Political programmes are important, but they require effective guidelines for implementation. Leaders in government agencies have complained about insufficient coordination at the federal level and a lack of teamwork between individual agencies when it comes to digitalisation. To them, it is clear that firmer guidelines and increased standardisation are imperative. Consequently, a centralised political body with sufficient authority, resources and decision-making ability is necessary to orchestrate the digital transformation across all levels of public administration. Proposals that prioritise digitalisation in the Chancellery, for example by appointing a state secretary or a committee on digital policy, are steps in the right direction.

The IT planning committee is responsible for monitoring the progress of the project, although it has had little success so far. Effective governance requires sufficient financial resources and a binding plan of action with clear priorities, responsibilities and deadlines, accompanied by a legal framework for the digitalisation of public administration. Moreover, it is imperative to develop competencies for the implementing digitalisation, for example through a digital agency supported at the federal and state level. In other words, a federal service provider organised under private law that helps build the capacity for practical implementation on a local level. Similar bodies have proven successful abroad.

2. No digitalisation without investments in staff and management

The digitalisation project needs well-trained employees and leaders in public administration who are passionate about innovation. But decades of downsizing and underinvestment in government agencies remain an obstacle. The average staff age is 44.7 years old and in the next decade, about 1.2 out of 4.4 million employees will retire. At the same time, both public administration and the private sector have been wooing IT professionals and other highly trained employees, especially those with experience in project management. The public administration survey found that personnel incentives are essential to attract applicants, as is adjusting the law governing the civil service to lure mid-career professionals who can drive enthusiasm for innovation. In addition, a lot of work must be done to train people for jobs in public administration, and also to provide training for those already on the job. Digitalisation topics must be included in curricula, for example. Employees – especially managers – require additional training to gain digital proficiency, while project management and teamwork across government agencies must be integral features of personnel and leadership development.

3. Digital public administration is not possible without showcasing success stories and improvements

Successful digitalisation cannot be an end in itself – it is vital that this transition benefits citizens, companies and political decision-makers in a practical way. The introduction of user-friendly solutions for authentication (via smartphones, for example), the implementation of the once-only principle and easy access to e-governance services are all goals we should be striving for. More urgent than a portal network – currently the subject of widespread discussion – is the provision of concrete services that citizens and companies will be able to process online in future. These services must be oriented around citizens’ needs rather than around government agencies’ responsibilities. Additionally, it is important to emphasise their potential for increased efficiency. Many managers in government agencies see digitalisation primarily as an expense – which it certainly is – but the mid- to long-term benefits of this investment are clear: increased productivity and lower costs. In fact, the National Regulatory Control Council (NKR) estimates that automated digital processes based on modern, connected databases  are likely to save citizens around 1.4 billion euros, and public administration itself 3.9 billion euros, per annum.

Our study clearly shows that the sluggish implementation of digitalisation is less a technical or legal problem, than a political and managerial one. These issues will first have to be addressed before the dream of digitalisation can become a reality in Germany.

This article originally appeared in German in Magazin TREND on 6 December 2017.

More about Gerhard Hammerschmid

  • Gerhard Hammerschmid , Professor of Public and Financial Management | Director, Centre for Digital Governance