Is the digital transformation of the public sector governed by networks?

TROPICO researchers compare eight EU countries’ digitalisation strategies over time.

A large body of literature claims that ICT and digitalisation have triggered broad organisational and cultural changes in public organisations. These changes have led many to conclude that we have entered a new era characterised by collaboration within intra- and intersectoral networks and this has become a key paradigm for public sector governance and innovation. Yet, empirical evidence of a shift towards “Networked Governance” remains limited, and few have explored further the linkages between digitalisation and collaboration in the public sector. In the report, "Meta-analysis of digitalisation strategies in eight European countries,” researchers at the Hertie School Centre for Digital Governance upended the idea that the digitalisation of the public sector is driven by collaboration and networks.

Gerhard Hammerschmid, Professor of Public and Financial Management and Director of the Centre for Digital Governance; Kai Wegrich, Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy; and PhD Researchers Enora Palaric and Maike Rackwitz compared the evolution over time of digitalisation strategies in Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom. The research is part of the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project TROPICO (Transforming into Open, Innovative and Collaborative governments), which runs from June 2017 until May 2021.

The TROPICO study looked at the design, coordination, and implementation of different digitalisation strategies in countries with different administrative traditions, coding early and later strategies to look for evidence of a shift towards “Networked Governance”.

“We cannot conclude that a networked governance is emerging in the era of digital government,” they said in a policy brief accompanying the paper. “In fact, the way in which digital transformation of the public sector is put forward in the strategies may strengthen hierarchical patterns of command and control.”

The researchers found that the implementation of digitalisation strategies is mainly steered centrally by the political leadership or a core government organisation, while non-state actors do not play any steering role. Furthermore, while the most recent strategies put a stronger focus on collaboration with external actors, the intensity of collaboration remains relatively weak.

The authors cited competing interests, silo structures, and increasingly fragmented government sectors as continuing challenges. “Potential struggles which arise during the collaboration process, such as deadlocks resulting from power imbalances or a lack of incentives for collaboration, continue to hinder digital transformation of governments.”

The TROPICO project is led by the University of Bergen (UiB), in partnership with Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (The Netherlands), Hertie School (Germany), Tallinna Tehnikaulikool (Estonia), Universidad de Zaragoza (Spain), Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), University of Antwerp (Belgium), Roskilde University (Denmark), Central European University (Hungary), Cardiff University (United Kingdom), Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France) and Universität Potsdam (Germany).

Read the full report.

Find out more about TROPICO here.