What skills the employees of a digital administration need
Digital services for citizens and more efficient processes – these are two of the goals of an administration of the future. In order for this transformation to pick up speed and be implemented quickly, people are needed to make it happen. Understanding technology is not even that important. Our author describes the skills they need and how they can learn them.
The digital transformation is increasingly affecting the public sector. After a quarter of a century of experience in e-government with limited reach into administration, there is an increasing call for “digital first” (Mergel 2019). Digitalisation offers innovative opportunities, but only if employee empowerment is not focused solely on technological skills. But what exactly these skills are that the public administration should have is still the subject of small and large studies. The Public Sector Transformation Institute, together with the eGov Innovation Centre of the HES-SO, was commissioned by Digital Administration Switzerland (DVS, formerly eGovernment Switzerland) to investigate the “knowledge of the potential benefits of digital processes in public administration” as part of the implementation goals of the eGovernment Strategy (2020-2023). The background to this commission is the realisation that the public administration at all federal levels should undertake targeted competence development, but that their competences and capabilities have so far only been named in a few concrete ways.
Competences in 9 categories
The study in Switzerland was preceded, for example, by a much larger study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS) called “Qualifica Digitalis”: A Qualification Programme for the Public Sector in Germany. In a very comprehensive meta-study, the competences, perspectives and learning methods in the digitalised public sector were surveyed, based on the relevant literature. The broad approach in understanding digital competences for public administration is surprising at first: the study identified no less than 9 main categories (Schmeling & Bruns, 2020). These results, in turn, could be largely adopted for the aforementioned study for Switzerland (see Figure 1):
- “Data literacy”, at first glance the competence par excellence for digital transformation, is only one category.
- Others include “Designing and changing organisation and processes with the help of IT”,
- “Communicating and collaborating in digital environments” or “Problem solving and acting in a digital
- “Problem solving and acting in the digital environment”.
These categories formed the orientation framework for the study in the Swiss public sector. With semi-structured interviews, the identified categories could be assessed with e-Gov specialists from cantons and larger Swiss municipalities.
Fig. 1: Visualisation of competences in a digitalised working environment 6 categories (Gees et al. 2022)
It can be seen that on a scale of 1-4, all fields of action are considered relevant by the experts surveyed. No category was given less than 3.2 points in the survey (average). Data literacy (knowledge and skills for handling data along the data life cycle, also the ability to interpret data professionally) is rated as the undisputed top skill. It was interesting to compare and rank these competences when the same experts had to rank the already existing skills today (column “Integration” in the table below).
Experts’ assessments of the relevance and integration of competences (Gees et al. 2022).
The table is structured according to the greatest differences between relevant competences (according to the assessment of the e-Gov experts in the municipalities and cantons). Here it can be seen that data literacy received the lowest value in terms of already existing competence (1 lowest value on the scale of 1-4). The competences “Searching, processing and storing digital information” and “Communicating and collaborating in digital environments” are relatively well present. The other four categories need to be strongly promoted according to the assessment.
Further education against deficits
With the present study, the administration in Switzerland, but also further education institutions such as the Bern University of Applied Sciences, have initial indications of which deficits need to be remedied among employees. According to the study, data literacy (sometimes also called digital literacy) is an urgent postulate. However, the offers need to be developed in such a way that they are broadly applicable, so that they are attractive and comprehensible for professionals and managers who are not data specialists. With the Certificate of Advanced Studies, CAS Public Sector Transformation, the BFH Wirtschaft will offer a further education course for specialists and managers from the public sector from November 2022, which focuses on data competence but is committed to a comprehensive approach to digital skills in administration.
 The Qualifica Digitalis project ran for 2.5 years (01.01.2020 to 30.06.2022). The state of Bremen was in charge, the project manager was Henning Lühr, and the project manager was Katja Lessing. The project was carried out in a scientific competence network with the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS), the German Research Institute for Public Administration (FÖV) and the Institute for Information Management Bremen (ifib), see Schmeling and Bruns (2020), p 8.
Gees, Th, Delaloye, M.; Wüst, A., Baudet, C.; Sokhn, M (2022): Promoting knowledge of the potential benefits of digital processes in public administration. Final report commissioned by eGovernment Switzerland on implementation goal 20 (UZ20)
Mergel, I. (2019). Digital transformation as a reform project of the German public administration. dms-der moderne staat-Zeitschrift für Public Policy, Recht und Management, 12(1), 21-22.