I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.
Together 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Administratively collected data: Surveys, or transactions in which we are open-eyed. Very detailed data that are requested and deliberately filled in. Highly structured.
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)
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.
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?
Previously unimagined insights into the behaviour and preferences of citizens
Quick data availability and decisions in real time (nowcasting)
The potential of democratisation: Who will be heard?
Distribution of Fake News
Transparent Citizen: We do not know which algorithms are used or how they affect citizens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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,
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
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.
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 Challenge.gov”. The journal has made 50 eprints available for free.
Online Open Innovation (OI) platforms like Challenge.gov 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 Challenge.gov 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 Challenge.gov,Public Management Review,20:5,726-745,DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2017.1320044
I am working at a public University with an explicit open access policy and an active funding pipeline to extend open access to academic journals. This includes an open access repository for faculty publications (KOPS – The Institutional Repository of the University of Konstanz). Publications are listed when they come out and after one year of publishers’ embargos are uploaded in full text. Incentives are available to partially pay for publications in open access journals – but not for open access options in closed access journals.
Over the years of publishing for both academic and practitioner audiences, I have developed my own open access strategy by using free social media tools, like this WordPress blog or Twitter and Facebook to push information about new publications out.
Here is my own publication strategy:
I. Academic journals in the public administration field
1. Public Administration Review
2. Government Information Quarterly
3. Public Management Review
4. Public Administration
5. The American Review of Public Administration
6. Administration & Society
7. International Review of Administrative Sciences
8. Review of Public Personnel Administration
9. International Public Management Journal
So far, I haven’t tried to place articles in German speaking public administration journals given my above mentioned reasoning to submit to highly cited journals. But I might change this in the future. I also don’t write book chapters anymore – except if they are low cost in terms of effort or a PhD student needs to get into a writing rhythm. I noticed that none of my 18 book chapters received a single citation – so in effect it is dead knowledge and a waste of my time. However, it might be a useful tool for PhD students to learn how to write and how to handle reviewer feedback.
I have also mostly stayed away from conferences – in the IS field for example – that require full-texts and publish them online. In PA, these conference proceedings are usually not considered as full publications – only as conference presentations.
II. Practitioner-oriented blogs and research reports
A few years ago, I decided to repurpose my academic research and ‘translate’ it in plain language for public managers. I like to have an impact, but much more importantly: I experienced the risk-taking attitude of many public managers who are willing to explore and experiment with new technologies to make their organizations more efficient and effective. They continuously amaze me by taking the time for research interviews, follow-ups, and by providing additional documents. I like to give back – but the timeframes that academic journals have do not match the needs of public servants, who are RIGHT NOW working on the problem I am conducting research on and could potentially use the input I received from their peers.
The problem is: The academic community tends to label those of us who step outside as “practitioners”. Which in all other fields is an honor, but apparently among academics it moves you into the category of the shunned… I wish people would be more open minded, especially in public administration a field that is highly applied and works on the hard problems that society – and by extension public administrators – are currently dealing with.
Now that my research is also publicly funded, I believe we even have an obligation as academics to give back to society and move our research out in formats that are accessible to all – not just our own echo chamber.
III. Social media to move my writing into people’s timelines
When I started my first faculty job in 2008, I was lucky to conduct research on how the US bureaucracy absorbed some of the technological innovations that were moved from the Obama political campaign into day-to-day governing. This coincided with my own habit to write about my research experiences online, so I repurposed my social media channels mostly for professional use.
I use my WordPress Blog “Digital Innovations in the Public Sector” to post about new publications, add a URL to the open access version as well as any additional information that people might find useful. I sometimes add background or links to related topics.
Recently, I started to separate out German blog posts on a new Medium blog under my own name. I felt it was important to cater to German public managers who might not read my English updates on WordPress.
In addition, I repost these writings through all other social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Xing. I tend not to get into heated conversations on social media – and revert to DMs or email instead.
IV. Listing for transparency and impact assessment purposes only
For transparency purposes I am also listing my research on ResearchGate. Unfortunately, ResearchGate has caved in to the pressure of publishers and has removed all full texts I was once asked to upload. This has made the process even more cumbersome, because now you have to answer to requests for articles that are already available on the platform, but no longer accessible to the members of RG. What is the point of staying on RG? The impact indicators are interesting – but otherwise I haven’t figured out an additional purpose yet. I removed myself from other predatory platforms, such as Academia.edu, and hope that my University’s open access strategy will become similarly relevant for academics who are looking for my writings.
My OrcID and GoogleScholar pages are automatically populated and sometimes I add updates, for example for funding I received or early publications that are not listed yet.
V. Building an Open Public Administration Commons
In 2008, I attended the third Minnowbrook Conference III that is organized every 20 years to review and revise the directions of public administration as an academic field. The findings from Minnowbrook III are summarized in this edited volume “The Future of Public Administration Around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective” by Rosemary O’Leary, David van Slyke, and Soonhee Kim – who were also together with Stuart Bretschneider members of my tenure committee. I contributed a book chapter on social media that later served as the foundation for my research program.*
As part of Minnowbrook III, we also contributed to a special issue of JPART – Journal for Public Administration Research and Theory. Together with my co-authors, we developed our vision of open public administration scholarship – and I am in the process of establishing exactly that: an open access platform to move our research and the students’ research each semester online and make it accessible. At the moment, I am the only one who reads it. It is archived in paper format in the library, but not available in the open – a shame given that lots of it is empirical in nature and many public servants have taken the time to answer surveys or conduct interviews with my students. The platform will provide the full versions of articles, final papers from my seminars, and bachelor, master and PhD theses. In addition, an editorial team will work with the students to summarize these full text versions into smaller, easier to digest pieces of 2-3 pages. We are planning to publish both in English and German, so that our writing continues to be available for international audiences, and most importantly also for practitioner audiences in German public administrations. Stay tuned for the announcement of OPAS.
I am curious what other people’s publication strategies look like. Please leave a comment!
*Mergel, I. (2010): The use of social media to dissolve knowledge silos in government, in: O’Leary, R., Kim, S. and Van Slyke, D. M. (Editors): The Future of Public Administration, Public Management and Public Service Around the World: The Minnowbrook Perspective, Georgetown University Press, pp. 177-187.
Imagine a toy manufacturer that lets children decide on the design of its new products. For instance, the company might seek the children’s input on the desired components of a new toy pirate ship using an online platform. Professor Mergel believes that this could be a blueprint for the digital transformation of public administrations. Citizens should have a say especially in the digitisation of external public services.
This kind of collaboration between authorities and users is called co-creation. The concept is currently being studied by the EU project cooperation “Co-VAL”. Ines Mergel’s team is one of twelve research groups from eleven European countries that are being funded with 4.1 million euros in the context of the EU funding programme “Horizon 2020”. The Co-VAL project is coordinated by the Athens Technology Center SA (Greece).
The aim is to provide policy recommendations for transformative strategies that integrate the co-creation of value in public administrations. “Co-Production of Public Value” – Co-VAL – means that the public sector works closely with the users, i.e. the citizens, to develop digital formats or entirely new digital services. Ines Mergel believes that existing e-government services in Germany are not particularly user-friendly, which could explain why users have, by and large, chosen to steer clear and rarely accept digital services provided by public administrations. One example is the digital national ID card, which is hardly being used because it fails to address citizens’ actual needs.
“The government’s online services must be tailored to reflect citizens’ use and search behaviour. Accessing information must become easier”, says Ines Mergel. To achieve this, she wants to actively involve the users.
380,000 euros from the overall Co-VAL funding amount have been set aside for her team to carry out research on the digital transformation of public administration. The first part of the project, a systematic literature review, has already been concluded. Currently, the team is in the process of conducting interviews with public and private sector experts from across Europe and the United States. Building on these interviews, Ines Mergel and her team are identifying concrete and on-going transformation processes and, as a result, potential approaches to and opportunities for co-creation.
The next step the international research team will take will be to create a theoretical framework for these transformative processes. “We plan to extract knowledge from practical contexts, synthesize and analyze it systematically and feed our insights back into administrative practice”, explains Ines Mergel. The research results will then be harmonised with the objectives of the “Tallinn Declaration on E-Government” signed by all EU and EFTA states.
Project Co-VAL – “Understanding value co-creation in public services for transforming European public administration”
Duration: 2017 until 2020
The research initiative is part of the EU funding programme “Horizon 2020”
Twelve partner institutions from eleven European countries are involved
Overall funding amount: 4.1 million euros; funding for Professor Mergel’s project: 380,000 euros