New seminar: ‘Digital Transformation in the Public Sector’ at the University of Konstanz

Academia 2.0, Adoption of new technology, Classroom innovation, Digital Competencies, Digital Government, digital literacy, Digital Transformation, Teaching

This semester I am teaching a new seminar that focuses on a relatively new topic: The challenges that public administrations are facing when they are aiming to digitize their analog services. Under the catchy term “digital transformation”, many are looking to not only move from analog to digital, also redesigning, automating, or abandoning outdated administrative acts and the corresponding services.

The term was adopted from the private sector, where digital transformation of products and business models started to occur with the use of the Internet as a distribution and communication channel. The tricky situation for public administrations however is that they can’t reinvent their business models, look for new customer segments, or abandon offline products/services. Unfortunately, public administrations are compared to those whose core business model was digital transformation of their own sectors, such as Apple’s iTunes platform, Skype replacing landline phones, Amazon transforming book/retail sector, Twitter as a newsfeed replacing traditional print newspapers, etc.

We have very limited literature on the topic, therefore the goal of this seminar is that students are deriving research questions from expert interviews and are adding necessary insights by conducting additional interviews. I will give a short introduction to the topic, plus train them in qualitative data collection and analysis – with the hope that they will be equipped to design an interview guideline, select interview subjects, analyze, and present the data.

I was able to cooperate with four external partners for this project: the City of Konstanz, the Initiative D21 (responsible for Germany’s annual e-Government monitor), the City of Ulm’s Verschwoerhaus (an innovation lab), and the Deutschen Städte- und Gemeindebund. They will join us in person or via Skype, present a short introduction of their main problems and findings and then we will open up the conversation for the student-led Q&A.

Finally, the students will design posters with their main findings – an alternative way of communicating research insights to an audience – and will discuss their findings in the Mayor’s office with civil servants who are interested in digitization.

The project is supported with an internal grant to increase the transfer between research, teaching, and practice. This is an initiative that was requested by the student body and in my opinion an applied topic like digitization fits extremely with this mission. I am also hoping that the students are gaining valuable methodological and communication skills, will be able to ‘translate’ their academic insights in plain language to a larger audience, and will be generally best prepared for their BA theses and the job market.

I have made good experiences including practitioners into my classes before, but never transferred the findings of the students from academia into practice – except for using a class blog to encourage the students to write for digital media outlets. It created a bit of press attention and was listed by FedTech magazine as one of the “50 must-read federal IT blogs” in the US. You can read about my experiences and download the syllabi here:

  1. Mergel, I. (2016): Big Data in Public Affairs Education, in: Journal of Public Affairs Education, 22(2), pp. 231-248.
  2. Mergel, I. (2012): The Public Manager 2.0: Preparing the Social Media Generation for the Networked Workplace, in: Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE), 18:3, pp. 467-492.

Here is a poster we designed that provides a few insights (in German):


Government 2.0 class – students commenting on their own learning process

Adoption of new technology, Government 2.0, social media, Teaching, technology

I am teaching PPA730 Government 2.0 for the fourth year with the challenge that the topic is truly a moving target. The course schedule organically evolves each semester – basically in parallel to the developments in the public sector. Four or five times throughout the semester guest speakers from government organizations join us to talk about their experiences either with specific tools or sharing their insights about their local implementation and then management processes. The first two guest speakers this semester were Rachel Flagg, GSA –, and Bill Greeves, CIO Roanoake County and my co-author of the forthcoming “Social Media Fieldguide”.

One of my current students wrote up a fantastic blog post over on our class blog and I would like to share her insights and her own learning process here:

Social Media – INEVITABLE ? So jump right in and ride the wave!!?

Our objective in this class is to understand how social media can be successfully used, especially in government and non-profits. An important aspect for me in being able to do this is to find a way to believe that this can indeed be accomplished given my limited experience, skepticism and a weariness regarding information overload. For me, what I was looking for was an overriding value statement and/or mindset that would set me on the path with a positive outlook. The 2 guest speakers we have had in class have helped make this happen.  Rachel Flagg of GSA and her amazing websiteHowTo.Gov  provided much information about the specifics of how to implement social media applications in Government. In addition, she answered one of our questions about how you deal with all the details, the instability, the beta factor, barriers, constraints with the advice to “just jump in”. Don’t let the uncertainties hold you back – have faith that you will make it work and “go for it”.  I plan to take this advice.  I watched the way young people were using all these tools all the time and simultaneously. They were crowdsourcing their decisions, making deals and creating networks at a breathtaking seemingly effortless pace. I started seeing ‘join us onFacebook,  ‘join us on Twitter’  everywhere online and in print media. Bill Greeves , the IT Director of Roanoke County , Virginia commented on the inevitability of the use of social media to become a dominant force in our communications both inside and outside government. “Inevitable” is defined as “impossible to avoid or prevent” and that sums up how I was feeling. His obvious determination and careful planning to harness the coming surge and, in fact, become a pioneer in the embracing of this technology was inspiring. So, thanks to Rachel and Bill, my resolve has been strengthened and I will adopt a surfing metaphor – “ride the wave” and if you “wipe-out”, get back on and wait for the next one. in the classroom: Government 2.0 syllabus

Apps for America,, Barack Obama, citizen participation, Collaboration, Good reads!, Government 2.0, Government as platform, Innovation, Open Government, Open Government Initiative, OSTP, social media, Teaching, technology, Transparency in the classroom features resources for K-12, Universities, and Education in the World. Among them is Karim Lakhani’s case study developed at Harvard Business School, Beth Noveck’s Democracy Design Workshop Do Tank, and now also my Government 2.0 syllabus.

I have been teaching this class for the last three years and the online syllabus shows a combination of resources I use for a semester-long course. As one of the motivations why my MPA students might find it valuable to participate, I use President Obama’s Open Government and Transparency memo, that asks the executive departments and agencies to be more participatory, transparent and collaborative. Especially in the class on Transparency, I refer to and the students have to think about ways to motive (local) government to provide datasets, make those datasets machine readable and how citizens can use the data provided.