by Prof. Dr. Ines Mergel
The digital transformation of public administration is increasingly shifting the focus to competencies instead of processes and tasks. HR departments and managers must now consider in which areas their employees have special skills that can be adapted to meet the new challenges in a digitalised workplace. In the future, administrative processes will be partially automated. This means that tasks can be completed proactively and with little human intervention by machines. This will make it possible for administrative staff to focus on complex processes. In other words, processes in which there are individual or multiple human decision-making processes and negotiation requirements that can only be met through interaction between different employees.
Distinguishing different types of competences
It is often pointed out that every administrative employee now needs more in-depth programming or data science skills, without specifying exactly what these skills should be used for. Therefore, we should first distinguish the different forms of competences and then clarify who needs which competences.
Individual competences include, for example, technical competence (“digital literacy”), which mainly includes the ability of individuals to access and evaluate information in different media. Information literacy then additionally requires that administrative staff have the ability to know when there is a need for information, to identify this information and to use it effectively for a given problem. In addition, the need for digital fluency, such as an open-minded attitude towards the usage of alternative technologies in order to be able to switch seamlessly between different applications. However, all this does not happen in a vacuum, but instead requires the digital readiness of organisational capacities (see figure below for an overview of the forms of competence).
Source: Own graphic
Since the New Public Management governance model has promoted the outsourcing of the technological competencies to external IT service companies or consultants, these competencies must first be understood and then successively built up again inside public administrations.
Required competences of different personas
In order to understand which competencies are necessary for the digital transformation of public administration, expert interviews were conducted with digital transformation experts. It turned out that far fewer technical competencies are needed to implement the digital transformation of public administrations, instead the focus is on other forms of competencies that cannot be derived in a generalized manner for all stakeholders. The interview partners highlighted four different personas: Citizens, managers, employees and IT service providers or consultants.
- From the experts’ point of view, citizens do not need additional or dedicated digital competences, as they often have far more experience through their own personal use of online platforms and mobile devices. Here it is rather necessary to increase trust in the privacy of formal digital communications and to encourage citizens to use feedback channels, as this interviewee confirms: “(Among) citizens themselves, I do not see that so many competences are required. Digital administrative services should also be simplified so that advanced digital skills are not required.”
- Managers in public administrations, on the other hand, are particularly challenged and must form a digital mindset to be able to rethink all processes digitally from now on. A distinction must be made here between management responsibility for large units, which can also be run with less specific IT expertise, and the management of specialist teams, for which specialist IT knowledge is required. Managers must be able to define implementation standards and, above all, understand digital ethics. They are expected to understand and support new forms of work, for example, with regard to the digital workplace or the home office. Here, a readiness for so-called “shared leadership” is expected, that is, a readiness in which leadership responsibility is broadly distributed so that people within a team and an organisation lead each other – especially if they cannot attend physical meetings in person. However, the most important competency for managers is that they need to understand technological trends to reduce their dependence on external IT providers.
- Administrative staff must learn skills in the form of self-organisation skills, especially when they move to a digital workplace. In the transition from old to new forms of work it is therefore important to develop communication skills, which are necessary for distributed teams, but also for new project management and implementation methods. Here it is important that discretionary powers are understood in relation to complex issues. This means that employees in the administration must understand their thinking “away from the request to the order“: What do citizens actually need? Where do they need more time and support? It became clear in the expert interviews that administrative employees do not need advanced technological knowledge and skills for the digital transformation, because from the interviewees’ point of view technology will become increasingly simplified.
- IT service providers and consultants need an understanding of the logic of the public sector. The customers are both citizens and the administration itself, and it is necessary to understand that it is not about their own – market-based – logic. As one of the interviewees points out: “We don’t need consultants who suggest that we abolish federalism.” It is important to understand that even if the public sector appears to be a single bureaucratic model, from the interviewees’ point of view each organisation is different and so-called “one-size-fits-all” business models should be abolished.
Establish digital maturity
Digital maturity describes an increased maturity level of public administration in order to be able to implement digital transformation. This requires above all an understanding of digital topics and trends: How are disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, block chain or cloud services currently discussed? Which new project management formats like Agile, DevOps or cross-functional teams are necessary for their introduction and implementation?
Public administrations should also work on change management approaches that remain consistent with the public sector’s value propositions, while proactively addressing the challenges of digital transformation. Despite many changes, there must therefore be sufficient resilience to preserve the values, and at the same time new needs should be derived from the business areas of the departments.
Many countries have begun to establish government-owned digital academies and, with the help of internal and external experts, specialized digital topics are being brought to public administrations in formal training courses. These include, for example, the Government Digital Service Academy in Great Britain, or the Digital Services department of the Canadian School of Public Services. Here, programs for entire teams can be taught in the form of accelerator models, and individual digital evangelists can be trained as multipliers for the rest of the organisation.
Public managers should also support informal learning. Actions in this area can include the provision of “open laptops” permission, so that administrative staff can install and test new technologies. Other forms of informal learning are communities of practice on the Social Intranet. Germany has, for example, focused on recruiting IT personnel from other administrative or economic sectors with the Tech4Germany or Work4Germany programmes. Here it is important to understand the motivation – possibly higher paid – of experts to apply for a job in public administration. Often these jobs are perceived as rather inflexible or burdened with excessive administrative burdens. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned programmes are extremely successful because they address the prosocial motives of the specialists recruited – temporarily or long-term – for the public sector. They demonstrate that the use of their IT skills can bring about change in an entire sector and for many citizens.
Special analytical skills for handling complex administrative problems based on empirical knowledge will not be replaceable by machines in the future either. Nevertheless, members of the public administration must prepare themselves to build up digital competences, as the working methods of public administration will change in the course of the digital transformation.
- The digital transformation of public administration requires both digital skills and digital agility.
- This includes skills for changing the world of work, such as project management skills, but also leadership skills.
- Digitisation is shifting the focus from tasks to competences that can be acquired through both formal training and informal learning.
Recommendations for action
- Digital transformation has little to do with IT skills, but rather with digital readiness and maturity.
- In order to achieve this digital readiness and maturity, training programmes should be designed in the public sector that do justice to different individuals.
- The focus should be on the change processes within the framework of the organisational culture and on concrete measures for change management.
Mergel, et al. (2019): Defining digital transformation: Results from expert interviews, in: Government Information Quarterly, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2019.06.002.
Mergel, I., Bellé, N., Nasi, G. (2019): Prosocial Motivation of Private Sector IT Professionals Joining Government. Review of Public Personnel Administration, https://doi.org/10.1177/0734371X19886058.
Mergel, I. (2016): The Social Intranet: Insights on Managing and Sharing Knowledge Internally. IBM – The Center for the Business of Government, https://bit.ly/2SzhYfb.
This blog post builds on three publications from the EU Co-VAL project:
- Mergel, I., Bellé, N., & Nasi, G. (2019). Prosocial Motivation of Private Sector IT Professionals Joining Government. Review of Public Personnel Administration, https://doi.org/10.1177/0734371X19886058. Download it here.
- Mergel, I., Edelmann, N., & Haug, N. (2019). Defining digital transformation: Results from expert interviews. Government Information Quarterly, 36(4), 101385, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2019.06.002. Download it here.
- Mergel, I. (2020). Kompetenzen für die digitale Transformation der Verwaltung. Innovative Verwaltung, 4, 34-36. Download it here.