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“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.

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“We don’t just need a technology debate, but above all a socio-political debate”

The political structures in Switzerland can have a blocking effect on the topic of eGovernment. In an interview with Benedikt Würth, Finance Director of St. Gallen and President of the Conference of Cantonal Governments, we discussed what is important when it comes to institutional reforms. We have seen that the joint report of the Federal Department of Finance (FDF) and the Conference of Cantonal Governments (KdK) on the organisation of cooperation across federal levels has come out on the subject of eGovernment. Can you report on this? The key question today is how business processes are changing in the course of digitalisation and whether our structures are sufficiently geared to this change. This applies to private companies, but also to the state. In terms of Switzerland, horizontal, i.e. interdepartmental cooperation is required, but also vertical, cross-state cooperation. Our understanding of federalism has always been that we adapt new developments. This means that we have to find new forms of cooperation so that we can satisfy the demands of the economy and society in the area of digital services and digital government. Of course, one can take the position that the state is not in competition, so we continue as before. But that is a fallacy. Society and the economy expect us to provide these services digitally on the one hand and to try to be as efficient as possible on the other. If you draw an international comparison, you find that we, as a high-tech country, are not at the top. That is regrettable and probably also has to do with structural conditions. You mean federalism? Not only. As mentioned, not only vertical cooperation is required, but also horizontal cooperation. The pronounced distribution of responsibility is one of Switzerland’s great advantages. In the digital administration, there is actually a lot going on, perhaps too much, so that the wheels do not always mesh, but may even block each other. We must therefore network ourselves much better horizontally and vertically in the digital cross-cutting issues. This is the only way we can make use of the digital opportunities. You are actually talking about the use of synergies horizontally and vertically. However, the document also deals with commitment. Can you perhaps say something more about this? Is this necessary? In St. Gallen, the canton and the municipalities have a governance, a joint structure that is able to create liabilities. That is very important in this topic, because it is no use if we have 90 percent of the municipalities in one solution and the remaining 10 percent do it differently again. We will only have the right leverage effect when everyone is on board. At the national level, we want to build up commitment step by step. We want to raise the level of ambition step by step. There should always be a political discussion about whether we should deepen our cooperation next time. Personally, I hope that the Confederation and the cantons will eventually have a governance that can create obligations in the central issues, be it identification, basic services or master data management. These are all things that are actually the raw material for the development of further process-related applications in the individual areas. But you also want liabilities in regulation. How do you want to achieve that? Of course, it is ultimately the parliament and the people who create binding force through laws. But it is important to us that the federal government and the cantons have a structure in the future that can determine at an early stage what we need in terms of regulation in Switzerland in the entire area of digitalisation. A better and earlier vote might have helped us, for example, with the controversial e-ID law, to recognise resistance that is now manifesting itself in the referendum in good time and to develop answers to it once again. So do we need a national e-government law? It may be that at the highest level of ambition we even need a constitutional basis. I still hope that we will get relatively far within the framework of the current order. But one could also say: we have the digital transformation and the constitution must be aligned with that. For us, it is crucial that this topic is explored in depth together and that solutions are found that are supported by the Confederation and the cantons. How does the national level differ from the cantonal level? The degree of complexity is simply much greater. In our understanding of the constitution, the cantons are sovereign. They have original competence in this area. There is also a lot going on in terms of intercantonal cooperation. My canton, with its 77 communes, has just joined the www.iGov-Portal.ch association. This was founded by the cantons of Fribourg and Jura in 2017. Now the cantons of Solothurn and St. Gallen have also joined. This means that more than one million inhabitants will use the digital services offered via this portal. Federalism also has an advantage in this point because it has a certain laboratory character. People try things out, develop topics and learn from each other, which is exciting. At the national level, we have a high degree of complexity. In this context, Ueli Maurer always says: “We don’t have one federal administration, we have 80 federal offices.” This heterogeneous structure is a challenge. The federal administration is a big colossus, departments and individual offices develop their strategies. The cross-cutting offices (IT, personnel, etc.) generally have a relatively weak position. When people talk about binding governance, they immediately react with certain reflexes – they can’t or shouldn’t do something any more. But it is not about centralising IT. We want to create a foundation that makes it possible to develop applications more efficiently, that are oriented towards processes and that are as free of media discontinuities as possible. The cultural challenge will be to move away from the traditional structural and hierarchical thinking that is inherent in the administration to a process thinking that is not necessarily only oriented towards departmental or office boundaries. You are referring to the regulatory framework. At the same time, you also mention a necessary cultural change. Is there a need for both? Yes. For the cultural change, we need not only the linear way of thinking, but also the more process-oriented and networked way. It’s a push and pull: on the one hand, we are pulled because of the development, which is technologically driven, but on the other hand, we also need the appropriate regulatory framework for implementation. An example: I am the Minister of Finance. Today, more than 50 percent of our tax assessments are submitted electronically, in some municipalities up to 70 percent. But the process is still not fully electronic until we have the electronic signature. That is very unsatisfactory, because technologically the prerequisites would have been in place long ago. Let’s move on to the issue of trust and data protection. The Federal Parliament will soon be debating the Data Protection Act. The bill is weaker than, for example, the European DPA. But if you want to win the trust of the people, wouldn’t that be the bone of contention? It’s important that we have regulations that protect my data, but at the same time you realise that people themselves are quite relaxed about their own data. That is a certain contradiction. I think we are still in a certain transitional phase. Transparency is important in this topic. In my canton’s e-government law, we have defined when and under what conditions data exchange agreements must be created. These agreements are all transparent and can be called up. Conversely, it is not acceptable that in the end so many hurdles are created within the administration because of data protection that all the advantages that we could actually have with digital solutions are cancelled out. Another important topic is data policy. Would that perhaps be a way to create trust, to have this discourse in public? We have to have this discourse, it is already underway. France is currently in a big debate with biometric facial recognition. The government wants to develop a third channel for public services (besides analogue and online access). This is a highly political discussion. I am not euphoric about digitalisation, but pragmatic. I see the opportunities, but logically also the dangers. You can see this well in the current discussion in France. In Switzerland, with its direct democracy and federalism, new solutions are only possible if there is a broad political debate and discourse. That’s why we need not only a technology debate, but above all a socio-political debate about how far we want to go. That was Michel Huissoud’s idea. He said a few weeks ago at a networking event in a panel in connection with sharing data in inter-agency cooperation, we can talk about it for a long time, but what would be important is to think about how the administration of the basic registers is redesigned That is an important core. But for that you need a structure, a governance that is able to set liabilities and standards on how to deal with data protection and data sharing. It always needs a political discussion if you want to go a step further. The joint FDF/CDC report aims at the highest level of ambition for a joint authority that is able to set standards. I think it is strategically important for the cantons to enter into this discussion now. We have to manage the digital transformation together. We don’t want the Confederation to steer unilaterally. What does digital administration ideally look like for you in 2030? It will have far more possibilities for direct and media-free interactions between citizens and the state that are possible around the clock. In my canton, we already have an office that works with chatbots. This will expand in the areas where we have large mass transactions. In specialised areas, however, many things remain analogue. Think of a complex tax assessment. We will have e-portal solutions that deserve the name and not umpteen portals side by side. A uniform electronic identity is a matter of course. For someone who is concerned with the great digital upheavals – e.g. artificial intelligence – these steps may not be great. But I am realistic. When I look at the pace of the last ten years, we have to gain momentum and that is not only through new technologies, but also through new institutional approaches.


About the person

Benedikt Würth (CVP) has been a cantonal government councillor in the canton of St. Gallen since 2010 and will retire from this office in May 2020. He heads the Department of Finance and has been President of the Conference of Cantonal Governments since 2017. Benedikt Würth has been a member of the Council of States since June 2019.


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The Education ID as the basis for the digital school

If digital teaching aids are increasingly used in class, pupils and teachers need an electronic identity in order to be able to use applications and platforms securely. This is increasingly becoming a critical success factor for schools. From the cantons’ point of view, national developments and cantonal requirements must be reconciled. In a research project of the Digital Society Centre, the situation for the Canton of Bern was analysed. The digital transformation of the school also includes the increased use of digital content and applications. If the issue of access and use of user data is not systematically resolved, numerous offers can no longer be used in practice and the data cannot be adequately protected. The education directors of the cantons have countered this negative scenario with the FIDES project, which aims to develop a federation of educational identities. This will create a national solution that will allow access to many offers with a cantonal or local education ID. The concept of federation requires that cantonal education IDs exist, because FIDES explicitly excludes the creation of a national education ID. With the federation, it only wants to enable a network for the existing identities.

What the Education ID should be able to do

In this initial situation, the Education Department of the Canton of Bern commissioned a team of researchers from the Digital Society Centre to clarify the initial situation in the Canton of Bern. The project documented the requirements and the existing infrastructure, developed a solution concept and interviewed the stakeholders. The aim of the study was to make recommendations on how to proceed and thus provide a building block for the digital transformation of the school. It was assumed that an education ID contains two central aspects and functionalities:

  1. An education ID is a unique identifier in the form of a number that is linked to a person for the entire educational career of the learner or through the entire professional career as a teacher in the schools of the Canton of Bern. Further data can be linked to this number.
  2. An access key (e.g. in the form of a user name and password) is linked to this education ID, which allows the person to confirm their identity to different services and thus gain access to different services in the education sector.

School leaders and stakeholders want an easy way:

  • for access,
  • to manage licences, and
  • to effectively protect the data of teachers and students.

Thus, the timing is right for the realisation of a solution. The biggest concerns about an Education ID relate to the protection of personal data, in particular to prevent “the glass teacher”. School publishers and providers of school administration solutions prefer a national solution so as not to have to integrate individual cantonal solutions.

Heterogeneous starting position

The initial situation differs in the various school levels with regard to the maturity of the existing infrastructure: grammar schools and vocational schools almost all use a uniform school administration solution operated by the canton, which can serve as the data basis for an Education ID. In primary schools, on the other hand, the tools used vary greatly: while many schools use a school administration solution from the three market leaders in Switzerland, Scolaris, iCampus and Lehreroffice, Excel, Access and Filemaker are used – roughly estimated – in a third of schools. These solutions based on Office tools do not allow for simple automated data matching and thus pose high hurdles for the creation of an Education ID. In the solution design, a decentralised solution based on the administration of the data and the provisioning of an ID by the schools was preferred for two reasons:

  1. The data should continue to be managed in the schools in order to be able to guarantee that the data is up-to-date.
  2. Decentralised data storage avoids a large database, which brings further costs and risks of attack.

The proposed implementation requires three elements:

  1. In the individual schools, the existing school administration solution is to be expanded so that the identity information can be used as electronically confirmable attributes. This means that the individual schools need a school administration solution with an additional element that also functions as an identity provider.
  2. To avoid duplicate educational identities being issued, a central database will be created that lists a data-carrying institution for each educational ID.
  3. As a central element, an intermediary instance is created, called a hub or broker, which forwards confirmation requests from authorised applications to the data-carrying schools and forwards confirmations back to the applications. This central element can be used to control which applications are authorised to receive the corresponding identity information.

Thanks to data sparseness, it can be achieved that a publishing platform only learns the number, role and any necessary membership of a class, unless further details are necessary.

Hub function in the future

In the course of the project, the interaction with the national infrastructures was also discussed. It is clear that the hub functionality will one day be provided by the FIDES infrastructure and thus also the organisation of the authorisations to receive confirmed attributes. Furthermore, it can currently be assumed that the register functionality will also be provided at national level. The piloting of the national solution is currently underway and shows how the solution works. For the canton of Bern, the study shows that the national developments should be closely monitored to ensure that a functioning solution is built that meets the needs of the canton. Furthermore, the canton should examine options on how school communities can be supported in switching to a school administration solution that enables the automatic exchange of data. This will make it easier to ensure that all pupils and teachers in primary school and secondary and vocational schools can use an education ID and thus have simple and secure access to different digital applications and content in the future.


You can find the report on the project under Research Reports and Studies here.

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