“Lost in Transition” – a reflection on Digital Governance post-Covid

The Corona crisis has greatly changed our needs in many areas. The pressure to change has increased rapidly – also for a digital and agile administration. A reflection by researcher Anja Wüst from the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft Due to unprecedented urgency, crisis management services had to be created overnight. And we did it! But the euphoria is short-lived, because now we have to build the efforts into the Swiss administration in the medium term. How to continue with “the new normal”? Overcoming the crisis alone is good, but unfortunately it is not enough. In the face of the current transition, let’s take a moment to reflect on how we can benefit from the lessons of the Corona crisis in the future.

From the inside, from the outside

On 20 March 2020, the Federal Council announced the first package of measures of 20 billion Swiss francs to cushion the economic consequences. Switzerland had to launch an accessible, data-protected and fraud-proof infrastructure for its 580,000 SMEs with a potential need for emergency loans. And it had to do so within a fortnight. Martin Godel is deputy director of SME policy at SECO and has proven: The Swiss administration can act quickly and in detail if it is given the necessary room for manoeuvre. SECO’s EasyGov platform, designed for businesses, was responsible for coordinating the Covid-19 bridging loans. Due to the enormous need for infrastructure and personnel (e.g. for the enormous number of hotline enquiries), collaborations were concluded with the private sector. By 31 July, it had thus been possible to respond to over 150,000 enquiries and conclude loan agreements worth almost CHF 17 million in collaboration with 120 banks(presentation by Martin Godel, 03.09.2020). For the media and citizens, however, the focus was not on internal success stories, but on negative headlines. Positive Corona test results were still faxed to the FOPH(NZZ, 20.03.2020). The protective mechanism of masks was doubted and the wrong number of deaths was reported to the Federal Council(SRF, 04.08.2020). Are these mishaps really only due to the lack of digitalisation? With their exposure, the administration and its task of ensuring security and stability in the system becomes visible to the population and thus also vulnerable. As these examples show, the crisis has given us an opportunity for transition. It is therefore high time to consider in which areas we need to improve quickly, what we can change in the administration of the future and where we want to set our focus.

Renegotiating positions

Why was the support credit process so successful? Martin Godel explained at our recent eGov lunch at IPST: “In the acute phase, any risk of error was accepted in the context of developing and setting up the platform.” Risk aversion is often cited as the poster child for lack of innovation in government. So it is refreshing to experience how quickly we can get rid of these barriers and create disruptive solutions in crisis situations. The conditions and expectations of citizens have changed abruptly. A shift in values has taken place, and we have a lot to gain from it:

  1. The administration developed citizen-centred services now that a clear benefit was addressed.
  2. Task forces and offices were quickly given the necessary autonomy and political endorsement. The legal basis for the Swiss Covid-19 tracking app was passed in parliament within a month and approved by SwissMedic, even though the product was not yet fully developed (Lukas Bruhin, SmartGovDay,08.09.2020).
  3. A shift also took place in the complexity of these new tasks under time pressure. The authorities had no choice but to collaborate with out-of-state actors, because such a challenge cannot be met on their own.

Switch from crisis mode to medium-term innovation mode

At the moment, no one is thinking about returning to normality – the new living conditions are too drastic. The task now is to build these profitable insights into our administrative system in a sustainable way. There has never been a better and more urgent time than now to collectively rethink and sustain our models of leadership, culture and collaboration. What are we talking about when we think of sustainable transformation? Digital transformation requires innovation across the entire business and value creation model. It can only succeed if everyone can participate in shaping it, which does not mean that we have to throw our entire governance model overboard. Many areas have been able to respond very well to the crisis, for example public transport or the transfer of service tasks to online counters. They are designed to be agile and can serve as beacon projects for the less innovative areas. In order to make the leap from crisis mode to a medium-term innovation mode, we must have the courage to leave behind attitudes that have not proven themselves or are no longer suitable for our times. For example, we need to rethink the incompatibility of childcare with the new world of work, or the underestimated and unpaid care work of the generation of grandparents in relieving the burden on families. But this also includes the obvious weaknesses of digitalisation, namely the insufficient inter-agency data management. As the SwissCovid app has shown, we should also quickly say goodbye to the zero-error culture and instead focus on a best-effort culture. A dynamic and engaged administration will also be met with expectations other than perfectionism(Mazzucato, 2018). The question now remains, what services do we need to provide? During the lockdown, families with little digital affinity were under extreme pressure. Infrastructure was also lacking to support older people in isolation. An open and resilient system will be able to respond to such challenges. The modern administration should not imitate the efficiency and profit-making logic of the private sector, but generate added value for the society of the future.

Ensuring sustainable innovation

As already emphasised, the paradigms around the state have shifted. Embedding agile and adaptive structures, processes and content are imperative for sustainable innovation. They should continue to consist of a solid framework with a stable backbone. In addition, however, there are now also dynamic and exchangeable elements that can respond to different innovation needs (McKinsey, 2017). In the event of the next crisis, they are already in place and do not have to be created from scratch. In the last section, we suggest approaches that can contribute to a sustainable culture of innovation. The challenge ahead is by far not only the implementation of complicated technical applications.

  1. The first approach addresses the skills and mindset of an organisation. All team members need to be involved in creating a culture of innovation in order to participate in the innovation process. Popular approaches are based on co-creation or alternative hierarchy and agenda-setting models.
  2. Implementation starts at the level of (digital) For example, employees from different departments need to have the opportunity for digital exchange. Collaboration is increasingly data-based; this also requires cross-organisational infrastructure components. With improved infrastructure, new types of accountability towards tasks can emerge. As the SwissCovid app and credit allocation at SECO have shown, it is worthwhile to take responsibility jointly by means of private-public partnerships.
  3. Opening up to cross-cutting collaborations in turn allows for a new type of project at the product level. With Minimum Viable Products, the administration would definitely have to move away from its zero-defect culture, allowing new products and services to be designed in a user-centric way and improved quickly.
  4. The last and probably most difficult transition will be rethinking our work activities Can’t previous areas of employment be better used in innovation practice in view of digitalisation?

The various elements of the transition do not yet provide us with any known basic assumptions. This is precisely why it leaves room for innovation. However, initial uncertainty should not inhibit us from daring to try new things and sharing experiences. Restructuring makes our administration open to new tasks, agile in cooperation and resilient in future crises.


References

  1. Mazzucato, Mariana (2018): The entrepreneurial state: Penguin Books Ltd.
  2. McKinsey (2017): How the public sector can remain agile beyond times ofcrisis (25.05.2017)
  3. Swiss Smart Government Day
  4. Neue Zürcher Zeitung (2020): More than 30 hours can pass before a dead coronavirus patient appears in the statistics. (20.03.2020)
  5. Swiss Radio and Television: “The mask issue was the cardinal mistake” (04.08.20)
  6. Instut Public Sector Transformation: eGov Lunch 2020/3: “How not to waste a crisis” with Martin Godel.

Transform Conference

Future Leaders of the Next Generation of Business People This year’s Transform conference “In good data we trust” looks at how we can proactively shape the future with a focus on data. It is part of the OECD’s ‘Gov after shock’ seriesand offers a versatile source of inspiration in the moment of transition. The event will take place on 13 November 2020 in Bern.


Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Dr Alessia C. Neuroni for her support.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Anja Wüst

Anja C. Wüst is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation, BFH Wirtschaft. The political scientist conducts research on innovation approaches in the public sector and participatory design options for digital democracy.

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