Human-centered design in the public administration classroom

Photo credit: 

Designing public services has become an important issue in the public sector: In countries like Germany, the number of interactions with public administrations seems to be insignificantly low: only about 1,7 or 2,7 times per year, citizens have the need to interact with their local governments. As a result, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of calls for change in the way that services are delivered. Citizens even claim that they trust a paper proof more than an online interaction with government. After all, they have the proof in their hands that they have submitted their files, claims, or paid their dues.

As soon as we start to talk to citizens however, it becomes clear that they are experiencing an extreme media break between their private interactions online, such as online shopping, social networking, etc., and their professional interactions with public administration. There doesn’t seem to be a reason, why they are downloading a form from a government website, print it out at home, fill it in by hand, walk it to a government office, and then watch a frontline worker type in the form electronically.

We also know that computer programs have far advanced in recent years that they are much better in recognizing faces in comparison to human beings, and that files are indeed electronically safer than the one paper copy that is stored in a binder in a physical government office.

This is where one of my latest seminars has started: How can we design public services that citizens actually want to use and trust?

I have designed the seminar using human-centered design approaches and teamed up with four cities in southern Germany who were working on standardizing 40 of their public services. We chose the top four processes for the class. The cities of Konstanz, Ulm, Freiburg, and Friedrichshafen collaborated with my students and I worked on supporting the students’ trips with funding from the University of Konstanz’ Transfer project.

The students learned how to conduct user interviews. During this period, I teamed up with Martin Jordan, Head of Service Design, at the UK Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service Team.

The students learned that users are internal users (public servants who supply the service) and external users (citizens or companies).

In a first step, they interviewed product owners to gain insights on how the process was designed, what happens with the data. They derived process characteristics and a flowchart of the data flow.

Next, they went out to interview users (citizens in each city) and derived a user journey. They found stories that go far beyond the mere application process and tried to get holistic insights about the process as well as exchanges and dependencies with other departments.

Here is a fun post by one of the teams, available on Twitter:

One team had the opportunity to visit one of the first city-level innovation labs in Ulm (Thank you to Stefan Kaufmann for his kindness):

And finally the kicker: The students came up with prototypes for each process.

The student teams, triangulated the different types of data they collected and synthesized their findings into a new version of the process. Some of them designed a prototype with scissors and paper, others built mocks-up using Powerpoint, and one team actually created a website.

Did I mention that they are Bachelor students in public administration? They are not programmers, but they came up with insights that every IT service provider can now use to implement the revised process.

Finally, we presented the findings to the four city partners and any interested stakeholders, including participants from the state-level Ministry of Interior and their IT service providers, local IT consultancies, and most importantly public servants from the city of Konstanz:

What was the impact of this seminar?

  • Proud students, who now know that they are well-equipped for their BA thesis (no small feat).
  • Seemingly happy cooperation partners: Two of the processes were already selected to be implemented including the suggestions of the students. I call this a major success: there is usually no transfer or immediate implementation of student projects.
  • Given the direct implementation of the students’ suggestions: They are making an impact on all citizens in this state.

If I were to do this again, I would improve the following issues:

  • Smaller groups, or more intensive training in team building and conflict management skills. Help the students understand how they can become teams – fast – and how they can make decisions as a team.
  • Find external funding – don’t bother with internal funding and all that it entails (settlement of accounts, etc.). Lobby hard enough so that cities understand the value of providing funds for travel costs – or: stay local.

Overall, it was very much worth it!


Posted in Uncategorized

Two 50% positions in EU Co-VAL project on digital transformation and innovation labs

We have two 50% positions available in my research group on digital transformation. The work is related to our EU Co-VAL grant. The work area is on digital transformation and living/innovation labs.

The full job ad can be found here.


Scientific staff – No. 2018/120

Since 2007, the University of Constance has been successful in the Excellence Initiative of the German federal and state governments.

From 01.08.2018 (earliest possible start date), the Department of Political and Administrative Science at the University of Konstanz will offer two half-day positions as
Academic employee (salary group 13 TV-L)

for a period of 2 years.

Research collaboration in the EU Horizon 2020 project “Co-VAL: Understanding Value Co-Creation in Public Services for Transforming European Public Administrations” in the research area of the chair “Public Administration”, collaboration in the working package “Digital transformation of public administrations” and “Living Labs” with the following subtasks: Policy and process tracing, international comparative public management case research and ethnography of a selected case.

The prerequisite is an academic degree with an excellent master’s degree or doctorate in public management or information sciences, ideally with an administrative background and the willingness and willingness to work independently at the Constance site.

The university strives to eliminate disadvantages that exist for female academics in the field of higher education. It aims to increase the proportion of women in research and teaching.

The University of Constance is particularly committed to reconciling family and working life.

People with a severe disability are given priority if they are suitable (telephone number of the representative for the severely disabled: +49 7531 / 88 – 4016).

The University of Constance supports dual career couples. You can obtain information at: .

Please send your application with the usual documents to Prof. Dr. Mergel, Department of Political and Administrative Science, University of Konstanz, 78457 Konstanz ( by October 31, 2018, stating the reference number 2018/120.
Application deadline: 31.10.2018

Translated with

Please don’t hesitate to ask me anything about the positions!

Posted in Uncategorized

New article: Agile government: Systematic literature review and future research

Bildschirmfoto 2018-05-11 um 07.04.42Together with Yiwei Gong and John Bertot, I edited a special issue for Government Information Quarterly on agile government. For our introduction, we conducted a systematic literature review of articles published on the subject during the last decades and provided guidance for future research.


Governments need to adapt to changes in their internal and external environments and create systems that allow them to scan trends, identify developments, predict their potential impact on the organization, and quickly learn how to implement changes to their standard operating procedures. As a response, government organizations are adopting agile approaches as part of their process redesigns, project management, and software development approaches. Although agility and adaptiveness are long in use in the private sector, they have been increasingly adopted in the public sector literature and practices. In order to understand the existing theoretical and practical foundations of the field, we have conducted a systematic literature review and identified four streams of research areas:

(1) software development approaches,

(2) project management approaches,

(3) application areas, and

(4) potential outcomes.

In this article, we synthesize this literature, provide an outlook on future research questions, and introduce several articles as part of the current special issue focused on agile government.

We included four articles in the special issue that focus on different themes of agile governments:

  1. Hong and Lee’s (2018) article provides evidence of how regulation and decentralization impacts adaptive governance. The authors argue that decentralization of governance can hinder the process of adaptation in the sharing economy, especially if the considered policy embodies entrepreneurial politics.
  2. Wang, Medaglia, and Zheng’s (2018) article investigates adaptive governance in the context of digital government where new forms of collaborative governance are needed to rapidly adapt to changes in the internal and external environments.
  3. Soe and Drechsler (2018) discuss how local governments collaborate for joint service provision, be more adaptive toward new technological and organizational changes, and introduce innovative services following industry trends such as predictive analytics, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence.
  4. Chatfield and Reddick (2018) show how a U.S. city government’s use of big data analytics enhances customer agility in 311 on-demand services.

Reference: Mergel, I., Gong, Y., Bertot, J. (2018): Agile government: Systematic literature review and future research, in: Government Information Quarterly, 35(2):291-298.

Big data and digitization talk script

Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 8.14.06 PMIn March 2018 I participated in a conversation on “(K)ein Traum von der digitalen Demokratie: Big Data als Chance oder Risiko?” as part of the Grenzgänger Wissenschaft talk series together with Professor Neuschwander of the HTWG Konstanz . We have talked about a number of questions and here are the answers I prepared:

What kind of data is there?

We currently distinguish four types of data:

  1. Administratively collected data: Surveys, or transactions in which we are open-eyed. Very detailed data that are requested and deliberately filled in. Highly structured.
  2. Open data: This means that some of this data is published, for example, by the public administration on open data platforms in aggregated and machine-readable format. Sometimes already helpful evaluated or visualized (unemployment figures)
  3. Data generated by users or citizens: Outside a formal transaction, on social media channels, other Internet transactions (shopping on Amazon), but also crowdsourcing actions, weblogs, clickstreams, search data. Can be private or public.
  4. Automatically generated data from human and physical sensors: measuring probes on buildings, buses, police body cameras, collected automatically without human intervention or consent. Advantage: very comprehensive data collection (all potholes through which a bus passes, complete data sets). Tracking of geographical locations, e.g. when you open your weather app.

Taken together, these are each in themselves “huge data sets” – some of a private / non-public nature, some of them public. All in all, this is unstructured Internet-generated data that is linked to structured data sets and can also contain geo-tags.

Where do we encounter Big Data in everyday life?

  • Internet resources: Social media interactions, mobile phone apps, videos, photos that are shared, online search behavior, Google Nest in homes, etc.
  • Structured data: Online shopping, mobile phone networks (who phones with whom), email exchanges
  • Geo data: Automatic login to mobile phone poles, satellites

What do you think are the 3 biggest risks and what are the 3 biggest opportunities?


  1. Previously unimagined insights into the behaviour and preferences of citizens
  2. Quick data availability and decisions in real time (nowcasting)
  3. The potential of democratisation: Who will be heard?


  1. Distribution of Fake News
  2. Transparent Citizen: We do not know which algorithms are used or how they affect citizens.
  3. Political and economic decisions are influenced. Google Flu Trends

Where does the data actually come from? Do we make them ourselves?

Each of us is involved in the creation of Big Data every second. This happens through each of our online interactions (be it Google search, Amazon shopping, social media channel interactions, smart home, smart metering, fitness wristbands, smart phones and automatic log-in to phone poles, calls we receive, emails we send, streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Video. Thus we leave behind so-called digital traces. Mostly passive and inactive, even without our knowledge and even if we do not actively use our devices. Do not participate to share our data. Even if you are not actively involved in a social media network, the exclusion says something.

What skills do citizens need in relation to Big Data?

There are two ways to protect yourself: First through personal actions and then also through systemic changes.

I. Rethink personal behavior:

a) Do not share everything immediately with the full power of emotions on social media! According to the latest, largest MIT study, it is clear that fake news is distributed faster and further than truths and the damage is already done. So first think about whether you want to be part of this machinery, like Pizza Gate during Hillary Clinton’s US presidential campaign.

b) Maybe read an article or the text format instead of a YouTube video or an exciting TV news show, so that you don’t let yourself be influenced by the pictures. Creating an emotional distance to the news.

c) But consider whether this can be true at all

d) Interpretation of who shares what and how and what their motives can be

e) Use offline networks such as clubs and village communities more than networking in the artificial online world.

II. Systemic changes necessary:

EU digital literacy framework to empower citizens:

  1. Information and data literacy: articulate information needs, localise and retrieve digital data, information and content. Assessing the relevance of the source and its content. For storing, managing and organizing digital data, information and content.
  2. Communication and collaboration: interaction, communication and collaboration through digital technologies, taking into account cultural and generational diversity. Participation in society through public and private digital services and participatory citizenship. To manage his digital identity and reputation.
  3. Creation of digital content: Create and edit digital content Improve and integrate information and content into existing knowledge and understanding of the application of copyrights and licenses. Knowing how to give clear instructions to a computer system.
  4. Security: To protect devices, content, personal data and privacy in digital environments. Protect physical and mental health and be aware of digital technologies for social well-being and social inclusion. To be aware of the environmental impact of digital technologies and their use.
  5. Problem solving: Identify needs and problems and solve conceptual problems and problem situations in digital environments. Use of digital tools to innovate processes and products. To keep up with the digital evolution.

From the state’s point of view, too, the digitisation and use of big data in public administrations is important. What are examples of this?

Use of Big Data in public administration

  • The first Big Data study in public administration was a combination of scientific data with Big Data from social media data (Twitter): The U.S. Geological Service was the first public administration to not only use scientific data on the magnitude of earthquakes, but also combine it with social media data to find out the impact of earthquakes on the affected citizens. By using these so-called humane sensors, it is possible to determine more quickly which decisions have to be made in the event of a natural disaster.
  • To protect against terrorists: analyze large amounts of data, check for anomalies, investigate forensic evidence and help avoid terrorist attacks. This can be done with sensors on physical buildings and then synchronize the data in real time with other databases, analyze telephone traffic, bank connections, online shopping, etc..
  • Use of VAT payments on online platforms are already actively analysed by tax offices in all OECD countries. All participants in economic transactions are provided with risk indicators, so that the tax office knows which transactions are risky (because they fall out of line) or which transactions are normal for a certain buyer/seller. Theoretically these analyses happen overnight and in the afternoon the tax investigator is already standing on the mat and tries to collect the allegedly evaded money.
  • Use Big Data to predict the financial health of individual companies, cities or regions. In combination with various data sets, the public administration can diagnose whether a company can survive in the market and is on the verge of bankruptcy. This is important information for the public administration, as it affects jobs. This leads to increased social expenditure, such as unemployment benefit, or even the brain drain from a region, because the unemployed have to move to where jobs are available. It is therefore in the public administration’s own interest to use all available data sets to determine what is in store for them in the future.
  • Government and jurisdiction should, however, be involved in the regulation of large social media companies, search engines and sales platforms:
  • o hold companies accountable for allowing so-called fake news to be distributed. For example, Twitter and Facebook have only now, under pressure from hearings, looked for how Russia has placed purchased advertising in the news feeds. This means that both companies clearly benefited from this propaganda, but did nothing about it. Researchers find this propaganda very simple – so I wonder why the social media companies pretend that they have to search for it for a long time and
  • “Weaponizing the Web”: YouTube as a place of radicalisation for young people and supporters of terrorist groups
  • Establish ethical principles for the use of online media that social media companies must also adhere to. NetzDG (Network Enforcement Law) = Law to prevent hate speech and hate speech on the Internet. Decisions should not be made in Silicon Valley, however, but in our linguistic area, in which we understand the nuances of language (irony, sarcasm) and also the context and thus do not block wrongly criticised content.

What do you think would happen if you completely ban the collection of data?

Data collection, e.g. of Facebook data, is already prohibited in the EU, but it has become clear that the EU is not taking action and is really checking whether the data collection (the associated sale) is not actually taking place. One reason for this is that the servers are located in the USA.

From my point of view, the users are particularly in demand:

  • Everyone should think about what they share on social media (parents who present their children publicly to get a few uhs and ahs)
  • Do you only want to use social media personally, for example, or professionally? Add colleagues, then?
  • Great discipline what you say online.
  • We have become aware of some risks and threats to democracies in the context of Big Data. In the beginning, however, you also had three chances each named by Big Data for democracy. We know you look at the subject neutrally from a scientific perspective BUT what would you say if you had to make a flaming plea for Big Data?

Democratization effects of Big Data:

  • There was a time when we all thought that Big Data had a democratizing effect. Everyone has pointed out that the Arab Spring would not have been possible if the demonstrators in Egypt had not gathered online worldwide to meet physically in Tahier Square. These are undreamt-of possibilities that Big Data offers: Information is distributed to many people and the power these demonstrations have can actually change the course of a government. Whether the results are always what you hoped for from a movement is another question. There are many examples, such as #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, NRA student protests in the US against the government and against the National Rifle Association -> no great improvement for the affected groups.
  • On the other hand, hashtags like the #metoo campaign skipped the channel and led to accusations, job losses, publicity that could possibly lead to a change in behavior. In any case to an empowerment (strengthening) of the position of women,

The promise to gain unexpected insights into the actual behaviour and preferences of groups of people or even whole nations:

  • Be it political voting behavior,
  • Purchasing preferences,
  • Effects of natural disasters on entire regions,
  • But also reactions of citizens to changed laws and the effects on certain population groups that were not previously on the radar

Additional material is available here:

  1. Article “Big Data in Public Affairs” in Public Administration Review [free pdf file]
  2. Article “Big Data in Public Affairs Education” in Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE) [free pdf file]
  3. European Group of Public Administration keynote speech 2017: Big Data in Public Affairs (full Powerpoint presentation available on ResearchGate)

A digital agency for Germany? Good idea – if you do it right!

The Grand Coalition wants to make Germany a digital country and reform the public administration. A few suggestions on how this could be achieved.

The coalition agreement negotiated between the CDU/CSU and the SPD provides for an e-government or digital agency. We want to develop our country into a strong digital country in all areas,”the coalition agreement states. But what exactly could this mean? Germany has no experience with digital agencies. This makes it all the more important to look at examples of this kind abroad.

A look at Denmark, Great Britain or the USA shows that if a digital agency is set up correctly, it can rapidly advance the digital transformation of public administration, create common standards at all administrative levels, reduce bureaucracy and bring it closer to the citizens. Essentially, we are talking about new online services that are easy to use for everyone, similar to those we are all used to in our private lives, for example when we shop online or use social networks.

In Europe, Denmark has already set up a digitisation agency in the Ministry of Finance in 2011, which prepares digital solutions together with citizens, tests them on a wide scale and makes them available to all levels of government. Especially in Anglo-American countries, digital agencies have already established themselves as an important instrument for modernizing administration. In Great Britain, the digital agency Government Digital Service (GDS) was founded seven years ago. It involves designers, software developers, administrators and citizens from the outset in the design of digital services for public administration to ensure a high degree of acceptance and usability.

In the United States, two teams were formed under President Obama following the crash of the HealthCare. gov website: First of all, the U. S. Digital Service (USDS), which was initially created as a so-called fire brigade team and then assigned to the White House as a staff unit. Later, 18F joined the team, which provides advice and support to the public administration to develop digital services from a user’s point of view. Since then, digital agencies have been established in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Italy, following the example of GDS, USDS and 18F.

What they all have in common is that they are directly assigned to the highest level of government. The management teams of the agencies – mostly at State Secretary level – were recruited mainly from the private sector, from Amazon, for example, from Pixar, Google, Guardian. Only in Denmark did the agency emerge from the administration.

The digital agencies have extensive budgets for administrative projects, be it online payment systems or the introduction of electronic ID cards, but also for the modernisation of internal administrative processes. Digital agencies have the freedom to work experimentally, similar to start-ups, in order to quickly gain insight into how online services of the administration must be designed to be accepted by citizens. This also includes reducing bureaucracy by rethinking existing administrative processes. In addition, digital agencies have the task not only of developing standards but also of ensuring that they are adhered to. Their “digital service standards” are valid guidelines for all other authorities and ministries. If they do not meet these standards, the work on services is interrupted and some budgets are frozen.

More user-friendly and cost-effective
What are the advantages of digital agencies? In a decentralised bureaucracy like in Germany, the urgent question arises as to whether the wheel really must be reinvented for every administrative level or whether once designed administrative systems can be replicated at other levels. As a result, costs can be saved and the interaction with public administration will look the same to citizens everywhere, increasing user-friendliness. Italy and Great Britain are already doing so: they offer once developed online services centrally and make them available to all levels of government. This even saves taxpayers’ money.

In Germany, public administration is currently working on the introduction of the e-file: the physical file is to be abolished, all documents are scanned, processes are being digitalised. Citizens’ accounts should be set up for citizens, so that everyone only has to enter their data once and can then be shared with other authorities. For many administrators, this changes the familiar and learned work steps. It would therefore be important to change the way the public administration functions in these processes of change. Following the model of digital agencies, agile working methods should be introduced, involving administrators and citizens rather than remaining passive users.

New tasks, new job descriptions
Digitalization is a major challenge for managers and employees in administration. They have to continue their training and learn many new processes. Wherever necessary, even new job profiles have to be created or external competences must be used. In any case, it is important that a “digital mindset” is created in the administration – the inner attitude, that it goes without saying that administrative services are automated.

Such fundamentally new forms of organisation and work in public administration need role models. Before setting up its own digital agency, the Canadian government had talks with existing digital agencies abroad in order to avoid mistakes once made and to be able to take its own Canadian route. A digital agency needs financial resources that allow it to build up personnel capacity for new forms of work. Internally, teams need the freedom to experiment, to rethink administrative processes from the user’s point of view and to develop a start-up culture so that change processes can be initiated. They need political support and wide-ranging powers of command to support radical changes in the German administrative landscape.

The next three steps for Germany
The coalition agreement is in place, the Grand Coalition, as we have known since the weekend. The federal and state governments must act now, the priorities are as follows: (1) The Federal Government should support experts – including experts from abroad or with experience abroad – in developing the concept of the digital agency. (2) As has already been done in some administrations, Germany should strengthen its digital administrative capacity. This includes expanding the digital skills of administrative staff and, above all, managers. (3) The digital agency must be endowed with cross-departmental powers and an appropriate budget in order to develop basic components of digital management in-house and then make them available to all levels of management.

Then, but only then can the idea of a digital agency become a success story.

Ines Mergel is Professor of Public Administration at the University of Konstanz. You can reach them by e-mail or on Twitter.

This article was published as a guest post on the blog of Jan-Martin Wiarda on 6.3.2018.

Posted in Uncategorized

A timeline of national digital service team start-ups

National governments are creating digital service teams at an accelerated speed. I have written about their approaches, team compositions, and outcomes in a report published by IBM’s Center for the Business of Government last year and expanded on it in this interview. My report mostly focused on the U.S. Digital Service Team and 18F, and highlighted some of the practices of the Danish Agency for Digitisation and its Mindlab, as well as the UK’s Government Digital Service and Team Digitale in Italy.

Since I published the first report, additional service teams were created in 2017: the Canadian Digital Service, Finland’s D9 team, and New Zealand consolidated its IT operations into one new agency, Digital.Govt.NZ.


New article out in print “Open innovation in the public sector: drivers and barriers for the adoption of”

The Public Management Review has published a special issue on “Digital Government and Public Management”. I contributed an article on “Open innovation in the public sector: drivers and barriers for the adoption of”. The journal has made 50 eprints available for free


Online Open Innovation (OI) platforms like are used to post public sector problem statements, collect and evaluate ideas submitted by citizens with the goal to increase government innovation. Using quantitative data extracted from contests posted to and qualitative interviews with thirty-six public managers in fourteen federal departments contribute to the discovery and analysis of intra-, inter, and extra-organizational factors that drive or hinder the implementation of OI in the public sector. The analysis shows that system-inherent barriers hinder public sector organizations to adopt this procedural and technological innovation. However, when the mandate of the innovation policy aligns with the mission of the organization, it opens opportunities for change in innovation acquisition and standard operating procedures.


Mergel, Ines (2018) Open innovation in the public sector: drivers and barriers for the adoption of,Public Management Review, 20:5, 726-745, DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2017.1320044



Posted in Uncategorized