Defining digital leadership in the public sector


[Interview on digital leadership appeared in the German online magazine’s Verwaltung der Zukunft on February 7, 2019]

In your opinion, what does “Digital Leadership” mean?

Mergel: Digital leadership has two meanings: It is understood as a particularly outstanding position of an organization or service taking a pioneering role in the field of administrative digitization. This is particularly true of those public administrations, which have done a good job of transforming what used to be an analogue service into a new digital service. These include, for example, the website, Danish e-Invoicing and Estonia’s x-Road data platform.

We are now increasingly using the term Digital Leadership to define competencies of public managers. Managers in public administration must act as digital leaders because of their position at the top of an organization or office, otherwise no changes can occur in the subsequent hierarchy. In my view, a digital leader is a public manager who, within the realm of legal possibilities, is able to come up with new approaches to digital transformation together with the members of the organization, and will then enable the team members to implement them with the organization’s overall mission in mind. In buereaucratic and hierarchical organizations, this is only possible with a clear mandate top down – but in the following it is not necessary for the Digital Leader to participate in the design processes – on the contrary!

What significance does this type of leadership have for public administration?
Mergel: Managers are oftentimes not digital natives because of their seniority in the organization. That is, they did not grow up with laptops, iPads and smartphones and don’t necessarily think processes from a digital first perspective. This means that in public administrations processes and services are designed from the perspective of the mandate, i.e. the law, the directive, or the existing internal logic of the administration. Rarely, however, with the claim to think of a service from the perspective of the user, who would like to do it today above all in a pragmatic approach from their smartphones or at home on the laptop. Due to their often jurisprudential training, public managers are very familiar with the legal framework and have become familiar with its limiting effects in the course of their careers.

What are the consequences of these restrictions?
Mergel: The implementation of digital projects is often limited to the implementation of laws, but not necessarily to whether the end product is usable by citizens. We have seen many of these non-usable administrative services in recent years – one example is the online function of the new ID card in Germany, which cost hundreds of millions of euros but is used by only a couple percent of citizens. Civil servants often even discourage the activation of the digital apps associated with the ID because the added value is unclear.

What specific skills does a digital leader need to bring to public administration?
Mergel: A digital leader should create a climate in his organisation that prepares the context for employees in which a digital mindset can be developed. Civil servants have limited room for innovation and are usually only allowed to act on orders with very little room for manoeuvre or experiment. On the one hand, this is an achievement of the rule of law. But on the other hand, it hampers action and, above all, thinking in new dimensions, especially when the mammoth task of digitisation is involved.

A digital leader should be able to reconcile all of this with the goals or mission of the organization in mind and defend decisions against high-ranking superiors or politicians. In other words, the role of the digital leader is also to block political attacks or to consciously confront the results of innovative change processes together with the employees.

What skills do you train to turn executives into digital leads?
Mergel: In my seminars, I mainly focus on what I learned from my international research on digital transformation from the digital service teams in the US, UK, Italy, Denmark, Finland and Estonia. These are teams that are deployed alongside traditional Chief Information Officers (CIOs) to implement digital innovation in public administration. I also use the EU Digital Competency Framework.

Why is it so important to train public administration executives to become “digital leaders”?
Mergel: Even in the field of digitisation, knowledge is power! Managers have to rely on glossy brochures and promises from external consultants due to diminished competencies in the IT departments and the long-lasting e-government investment backlog.

As a result, they are often chased from one innovation hype to the next and ultimately they no longer know what to focus on: Do we need Blockchain for registration certificates? How many jobs are lost when artificial intelligence makes human decisions obsolete? What digital skills need to be developed? The subject of digitisation has become a fearful issue among employees and led to an immense dependence on external service providers has arisen, both in terms of content and technology.

I advocate that both organizational and technical innovation processes must be triggered primarily through conscious internal change efforts. In public administrations, managers should be the drivers of innovation that enable their employees to think about innovations for citizens first, regardless of the legal framework. The second step is to check the legal foundations. Only then can the budgets be changed together with city councils or the end products be implemented by external IT service providers.

What do you give executives on the way to transforming the corporate culture in their agencies in the face of digital change?

“Show me the law!”

When I hear statements like “We’ve always done it this way” or “We’re not allowed to do it that way” – I like to reply with the request to show me the law or the guideline which says that exactly this procedure or these tools are forbidden. These are killer phrases that undermine any innovation – be it of an organisational or technical nature – and prevent renewal.

Don’t be scared – be bold!

Especially when it comes to digitisation, there will always be experts who are far superior to you. Put aside the thought that as a manager you must always have all the knowledge you need. If a service provider or one of your team members with a lot of technical know-how can’t teach you how a tool or a process works, then others will have the same problem. So be persistent and let it be explained to you until it is clear. But also be aware that there are digital leaders in your own organization who are hierarchically subordinate to you, but who have more product and process knowledge in this area. This quickly makes it clear that digitalization is far less about the technical competencies of managers than about organizational and cultural change competencies, and that managers have to be inspired by them.

Create experimental spaces to understand digital!

Only those who become part of it and try it out can make good decisions. Paper is patient, but experimenting – hands-on – with new technologies opens up the possibilities that digitalisation brings with it. Remember that both your organisational members and citizens are facing change with big eyes and need to build competences. Take the steps together. Only if you understand how digitisation works and have tried it out can you guide citizens to use the new tools, especially empower your own staff to experiment with them. A good example of this change is the city of Ulm’s Verschwörhaus.

Break down organizational persistence and inertia!

Many civil servants have seen administrative reforms come and go – they have mostly seen them fail. And that is exactly where you need to start: Encourage change by giving employees room to participate in events organised by internal innovation laboratories, invite exciting speakers to workshops in which people will learn from new perspectives and skills. This is much less about “shock and awe” lectures, such as a trip to Estonia, which leaves staff more frightened of the things to come. Make it about pragmatic lectures and workshops that impart skills, such as a Design Thinking workshops in which a chatbot is created or an administrative process is rethought. Allow the implementation and application of what you have learned. Only those who exemplify digital leadership, incorporate it into traditional action formats and allow their implementation into standard operating process will be able to play an active role in the coming years and not be surprised by every fad, but be able to actively shape their own digital transformation!

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