With enthusiasm and pragmatism for digital change

On 1 September, Christian Geiger took up his professorship in Digital Government, Innovation and Transformation at Bern University of Applied Sciences. The long-standing Chief Digital Officer of the City of St. Gallen will be researching and teaching innovation in the public sector in future. In this interview, he talks about his experiences with organisational change in administration and how he will incorporate them into teaching.

Christian Geiger researches and teaches at the Institute of Public Sector Transformation at BFH Business

Christian, you are a new tenure track lecturer in Digital Government, Innovation and Transformation. What exactly does digital government mean?

Digital government is about how digitalisation can be effectively implemented in the state, i.e. in politics and administration. This includes, for example, a more efficient, more agile, more population-oriented, more transparent and also more customer- and service-orientated performance of administrative tasks than is normally the case. In the discussion about digital government, research focuses not only on the technical aspects, but also on social and organisational issues when it comes to digitalisation and the digital transformation of the state and society. The aim is to use digitalisation to increase public value for the population and the economy.

As Chief Digital Officer in the City of St. Gallen, you have driven forward numerous city services over the past six years. Which project do you remember best?

We have driven forward some good projects and initiatives with very different stakeholders from the population, research and business: One example is certainly the #smarthalle – a pop-up store for digitalisation that was realised in the centre of St.Gallen a few years ago. There, the public was able to find out about various digitalisation topics, try out solutions and attend workshops on digitalisation, which were “played out” by various companies and organisations. My team and I were also in charge of the Open Government Data Coordination Centre for the Canton of St.Gallen and the municipalities of St.Gallen. With the municipal and cantonal commitment in this area, St.Gallen was one of the first players after the federal government and the canton of Zurich to promote the topic in Switzerland. The founding of the Smart City Hub Switzerland was certainly a key milestone in the joint implementation of smart city issues in the cities. As President, I was able to promote the exchange of experience on smart and digital topics in Switzerland for five years and also promote inter-municipal cooperation. From last year, it was also exciting, both professionally and personally, to work on the operational management committee of Digital Administration Switzerland (DVS), as the aim here is to find good, joint solutions in the area of digital administration across all levels of government in cooperation between the national, cantonal and municipal levels.

What do you need most for effective digitalisation in the public sector?

Optimism and enthusiasm, creativity and pragmatism as well as assertiveness and self-reflection – and of course the many colleagues who also saw the potential of digitalisation for the public sector and supported me in my activities, ideas and the implementation of individual projects:

  • Optimism and enthusiasm, because the aim was to shape the digital transformation together and try out new things, not to be discouraged by minor setbacks, but rather to make a fresh start and drive the changes forward step by step together with all stakeholders.
  • Creativity and pragmatism when it comes to tackling existing challenges in a solution-orientated way. New, digital tools should always be seen as a sensible approach to a solution and not be introduced as an end in themselves. For me, it was also always about finding solutions for the individual departments and offices that suited them – and at a pace and intensity that was optimal for the employees and the city.
  • Assertiveness and self-reflection were required when it came to standing behind one’s own ideas and visions, representing one’s own opinion – but of course being equally open to the ideas, needs, comments and fears of others. This also includes constantly scrutinising yourself.

You are now returning from practice to research. So you bring a lot of pragmatism instead of dry theory, right?

I hope so! (laughs). As I come from an academic background, worked at university for five years, spent ten years in practice and am now returning to academia, I bring a lot to the table for students, but also for research and practical projects. In my opinion, the scientific background and many years of practical experience are extremely valuable for excellent teaching, research and projects in the future. It is always important to be able to argue not only with theoretical aspects, but also to know how things actually work in practice, what works and where “stumbling blocks” are to be expected. At the same time, a good theory is also valuable for explaining practice, adopting different perspectives and anticipating future developments and behaviours. I believe that this combined approach can bring theory and practice even closer together and maximise the added value for students. Of course, I am also looking forward to the many future encounters and discussions with colleagues from academia, with students and also with “old” companions from municipalities and cities, various cantons and exchanges at national level.

What can research learn from practice?

In my view, there are three key points here: Firstly, that a theoretical idea or solution is far from being a practical realisation. It is one thing to produce, develop and formulate ideas. However, deriving the right products, the right policies and the right actions from these ideas and turning them into reality in order to generate the desired impact is not trivial.

Secondly, in practice it gets more complicated the more concrete you get – when the question is how a technical solution is defined, put out to tender, procured, introduced, operated and further developed. When we look at the path dependencies, because we cannot start from a greenfield site, both technically and organisationally, and when it comes to the fact that new technical solutions in organisations always become part of a socio-technical system in which not only the technology but also the people are essential variables.

Thirdly, that the objectively best solution is not always implemented. Science often criticises practice in its actions. For certain actions and decisions, however, science should also have an understanding of practice.

At BFH, we train young people who then enter the professional world with their freshly acquired knowledge. What do you give today’s students to help them become good specialists in administration?

What does “good professionals” mean? How do we as a society imagine a good administration? As a citizen, as an entrepreneur, what do I expect from an administration? Personally, I think the administration should be a reflection of society, fulfil its needs and serve the community. To achieve this, the administration and politicians should act innovatively and sustainably, should be crisis-proof and resilient. But to achieve this, the administration must change and evolve like any other organisation and use modern (digital) tools. Of course, the employees who are at the service of society are an essential key. They have a great deal of expertise and are valuable to the organisation. This is precisely why we need to support employees in their day-to-day work with modern (digital) tools and the right organisational structures. We cannot solve today’s challenges and problems with yesterday’s tools. But of course, many specialists will also be leaving the administration in the next few years. This makes it all the more important that we here at BFH train qualified and motivated employees – also as changemakers and future shapers – for the Swiss administration. I would like to encourage young people to be authentic, to lead the way, to scrutinise issues and to drive innovation in order to shape the administration of tomorrow.

Where do you see the challenges for these young people if they want to transform the administration digitally?

Due to its history, our administration is more geared towards continuity and stability, not necessarily rapid, continuous or even radical innovation. However, depending on the activity and responsibility, the digital transformation can be very far-reaching for the individual specialist areas, but also for the various federal levels in the Swiss administration. Looking at the digital transformation, there is sometimes a very fine line between “accepted administrative modernisation”, “digitalisation euphoria” and “radical refusal to innovate”, depending on the time chosen and the stakeholder groups affected. Finding the right “windows of opportunity” to adequately implement the relevant topics and also understanding the (administrative) policy practised within the administrations requires a great deal of experience in order to actually realise the desired changes in the area of transformation. The intensity of digitalisation can vary. We currently find ourselves in a certain paradox: if we were to rebuild the administration today on a “greenfield site”, we would very likely use digitalisation more actively than we actually want to and do in the established administrative structure in the existing, proven federal system.

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AUTHOR: Anne-Careen Stoltze

Anne-Careen Stoltze is Editor in Chief of the science magazine SocietyByte and Host of the podcast "Let's Talk Business". She works in communications at BFH Business School, she is a journalist and geologist.

AUTHOR: Helen Alt

Helen Alt is a Communications Associate at the Institute for Public Sector Transformation.

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