“The public sector needs more dialogue and less garden-variety thinking”

In order for the public sector in Switzerland to really take off digitally, there needs to be a cultural change in which all those involved have to overcome the “garden-variety thinking” that often still prevails. Thefederal government, cantons and municipalitiesinparticular should network more closely beyond their borders, says e-government expert Alain Gut, Director of Public Affairs at IBM Switzerland. From your point of view, how has the public sector transformed over the past five years from a business perspective? Are you satisfied with today’s maturity? The public sector has improved technologically in the last five years, but only very slowly. It still takes a lot of time to get to grips with new technologies and their possible influences and then to initiate corresponding projects. One benchmark in the public sector continues to be progress in eGovernment, and Switzerland is not really making much progress in this area. In comparison with other countries, we are not necessarily getting worse, but the others are getting better. In this sense, we can’t be satisfied with the Matura either. We are years behind with important basic services such as a functioning and widespread E-ID. Although we are (still) considered an innovative country, it is difficult for the public sector to accept and implement new developments. Political framework conditions and our pronounced federal system do not help to ensure a little more flexibility and sometimes speed. When we talk about transformation: Where should the public sector go? What are the expectations of the economy? One major obstacle to transformation is certainly procurement law, which imposes very tight constraints on both the administration and the providers. This also means that larger projects take a very long time and are often in need of “renovation” by the time they are implemented. With more dialogue (this is provided for in the old as well as the new procurement law), better and more innovative solutions could certainly be found. In addition, it is absolutely essential that a cultural change takes hold in the public sector. With today’s and tomorrow’s technological possibilities and the necessity of continuous end-to-end processes, the “garden-variety thinking” of departments, directorates, divisions and offices must become a thing of the past. This requires the political will and the necessary technological understanding of the executive and an administration that, as one unit, enables its customers, the citizens and the companies, to have modern and simple interactions around the clock. How does innovation happen in the public sector? This is a question that has occupied me ever since I have been involved in the public sector, and that is quite a few years now. What are the characteristics of an innovative culture? They certainly include creativity, trust in employees and the acceptance of mistakes – in other words, you have to be prepared to take risks – and a distinct and transparent communication behaviour. It is certainly not presumptuous to claim that these are not the distinctive behavioural characteristics of an administration. Moreover, procurement law almost does not allow the public sector to conduct pilot projects or tests together with suppliers. On the one hand, the administration wants to avoid invitations to tender for this, if possible, and on the other hand, providers do not want to expose themselves to a preliminary consultation and contribute know-how without being able to count on a corresponding contract. Innovation therefore needs an appropriate cultural environment and framework conditions that allow for innovative ideas. The OECD has developed a framework that summarises the problem very well: People, Knowledge, Ways of working, Rules and processes. On 20 November 2019, the Federal Council adopted the eGovernment Strategy Switzerland 2020-2023. The binding regulation of cooperation between the Confederation, cantons and municipalities is emphasised in this strategy. In this context, the final report of the “Digital Administration” project of the FDF and the CCC, which was published at the end of October, mentions three variants, according to which the third variant is the establishment of an authority that would be responsible primarily for transversal matters. Whatdo you think of the proposed models? It is gratifying that it has been recognised at all levels that a change in strategy is needed in the area of eGovernment and digital administration in order to be able to master the technological challenges. The proposed models are a typical Swiss compromise. Actually, everyone wants the best, third variant, but they are aware that in our federal system the necessary (legal) framework makes this (almost) impossible and takes a lot of time. The pressure for a nationally coordinated solution is probably also too low; our administrative apparatus still functions too well for that. The police forces also have a comparable project with HPi (Harmonisation of Swiss Police IT). After eight years, the results achieved are manageable and many hurdles of an organisational, legal and project-related nature had to be overcome. The “Digital Administration” project is about governance and cooperation. Should we urgently put other aspects on the agenda? The “Digital Administration” project covers the most important areas such as strategy, standards, innovation, services and networking very well. As always, it is not the strategy itself that matters, but how the strategy can be implemented. In principle, it is understandable that the Confederation, the cantons and the municipalities see themselves as responsible. That is certainly right. It would be desirable if there were more cooperation with the economy and science. Whether this takes place in the form of PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) or in working groups is secondary. What is important is the exchange of ideas and possibilities, working together to find the best solutions and the broad anchoring of results at all levels of government, especially among the population. We have invested a lot in projects and services in recent years. Brussels gives us bad marks because we are lagging behind in an international comparison in the area of basic services (cf. EU benchmark 2019). Which basic services should be prioritised? What is planned in concrete terms? Where do you see the challenges? Certainly, electronic identity, digital mail (electronic sending of documents and information between the state and the population/companies), eDocuments (documents can be securely downloaded and uploaded) and authentic sources (authorities fill out forms with known data in advance) should be prioritised. The basis of all this, however, is the electronic identity. It is in itself a prerequisite for all official processes. Switzerland’s new eGovernment strategy provides for corresponding measures in the area of basic services and infrastructure. Standards and interfaces must be created for this purpose. Without these, identity, access and data management can hardly be implemented. The Confederation, cantons and municipalities are challenged here. However, it must always be borne in mind that Switzerland is not on an island. The interfaces must also enable electronic exchange with other countries, especially from the EU. A referendum is likely to be held against the E-ID bill. Opponents of the bill believe that proof of identity is a sovereign task that cannot be left to the economy. Is this basically a question of trust or rather the role of the state in the digital age? It is about both. The state must in itself be able to offer an electronic identity. Why it does not want to do this under the new E-ID law is a matter in itself. The idea is that the state will check the identity and that the solution itself will be provided by third parties. Whether the state can be forced to do this by a possible referendum remains to be seen. Nor is this an ideal starting position and would delay the introduction of electronic identity by years. More important than who issues it is that the solution fulfils the necessary “blindness”, i.e. that no one – not even the issuer of the E-ID – can see who has carried out a transaction with whom. This is the prerequisite for trust in the electronic identity. The role of the state in the digital age is an exciting and still unresolved question and will require an intensive dialogue between the state, the population, companies and, above all, politics. At a panel discussion at the2019 networking event “Digital Administration for the Benefit of All”, Michel Huissoud, Director of the Federal Audit Office , proposed taking a constitutional initiative to redesign the administration of basic registers.Would this be the right approach to launch the public discourse on the topic of data policy? A constitutional initiative would certainly be one way to launch a broad discussion on the topic of data policy. However, there are already some efforts to raise awareness about the handling of data and to bring it onto the political stage. Open government data, data governance, data portability and Swiss Data Space are just some of the terms that are relevant in the context of a data policy. For Europe, IBM has developed such a vision for the year 2024 – “For a responsible, open and inclusive digital Europe”. An accepted data policy is necessary not only for eGovernment, but also for initiatives such as eHealth or eMobility. Open data as the new raw material not only of digital administration, legal requirements and framework conditions that make Switzerland an attractive data location must be the goals of data policy. After the major scandals involving social media platforms that spread dangerous information and misuse personal data to an unprecedented extent, there is in itself a high degree of sensitivity to the topic of data. But here, too, the administration, the economy, science and politics are needed. Only together can a data policy be established. In your opinion, which topics should be included in the political discourse? Is the Swiss public sector ready for artificial intelligence? Basically, the public sector should deal with all new technologies. Whether blockchain, artificial intelligence, quantum computing or hybrid clouds, they will all influence the public sector. However, it will be necessary for the public sector to integrate both the traditional and the new systems. This requires both business expertise and knowledge of new technologies. It is actually not only a matter of “integrating” them with each other, but also of transferring them into each other. A culture of agility and innovation is becoming increasingly important. Understanding an administrative process and how technology can be embedded in that process will be the key factor for the future success of the public sector. In this sense, people are also not (yet) ready for a concrete use of artificial intelligence. And here, too, it is important to keep regulation in check. The Federal Chancellery (with NZZLibro) has just issueda publication on Switzerland 2030 :What does digital administration look like in 2030? And based on that: What are the next steps? There are only ten years left for digital administration 2030. That is very little time for the administration. However, if we succeed in implementing all strategies – such as the eGovernment Strategy or the Digital Administration Strategy – as planned, Switzerland will certainly be in a better position than it is today. However, there is a great danger that we will not succeed in introducing new technologies, such as 5G, in time. The Confederation has an important role to play here in sensitising the population in advance and preparing the relevant information. Digitalisation is increasingly becoming the driving force for innovation in the economy and society. It is necessary to proactively seize the opportunities of this transformation in order to position Switzerland as an innovative and competitive business location in the future. It is therefore important that employees in the public sector – regardless of whether they are men or women – are given new perspectives and are appropriately empowered for the new jobs and skills. Let’s see digitalisation as an opportunity – also for the public sector!


About the person

Dr Alain Gut is Director of Public Affairs at IBM Switzerland. He is involved in numerous commissions and committees on the topics of education and IT, cyber security, mobility and data policy.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Alessia Neuroni

Alessia Neuroni is head of the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft. She is responsible for Big and Open Data at the BFH Center Digital Society. Her thematic focus is on data governance and leadership of cross-agency innovation projects.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Kathrin Schmidt

Kathrin Schmidt is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft.

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