Impossible job? Leading Germany’s public service digital revolution

15 Jun 2021

Impossible job? Leading Germany’s public service digital revolution

Public service digitisation is a huge challenge. What kind of leaders will be up to the task?

By 2022, 575 public services in Germany will have to be digitised. Clearly, a highly ambitious target. In fact, it’s a reform in scale and scope unprecedented in the world.

Digitalisation is, however, a contested topic in Germany. More often than not, modernisation efforts have stalled. The result is backlogs and the delay of IT consolidation of outdated legacy systems, with only limited pockets of innovation.

This digital transformation is urgent. The public sector lags far behind the private sector and is especially poor compared to the digitalisation efforts across other places in Europe.

To make life even more complicated, the multilevel system of Germany’s federal, state and municipal public administrations makes the decision-making and implementation even more difficult.

Culture is a barrier to adoption

Germany also struggles with a more rigid and unexpected barrier: culture. Germans are wary of the use of information technology and its adaptation into daily work processes in public administration. So, even if digital infrastructure and public service processes would be accessible, German citizens are hesitant to embrace them.

The rewards of getting it right are well known: improved engagement with citizens, delivering better public services, reduced costs, and bureaucracy and boosted efficiency, and, of course, helping to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

A recent Bitkom survey suggests the pandemic is causing conservative German attitudes to change. More than 60% of those polled felt data privacy could be loosened on health grounds.

Digital technologies and best practices mean you can take a new look at how to best serve the needs of citizens in an increasingly online world.

Organisations in government, healthcare, education and elsewhere that get digital transformation right are proving that the effort and investment reaps significant rewards.

The leadership challenge

Given these challenges, clearly the right leadership will be key.

As McKinsey observe, "CIOs have a notoriously challenging role. They must balance high aspirations with realistic planning, must keep up with fast-moving technology disruptions, and are expected to become domain experts in their organizations’ business — all while getting constant pressure from executive leaders who struggle to understand technology and while providing high-quality employee experience at ever-lower costs.”

Mckinsey identify three areas of advice for CIOs:

  1. Before you do anything, listen. Listen to the business, understand the IT function’s capabilities, and, only then, create your plan. An agenda created at speed might sound good on paper but doesn’t meet the needs, capacity, and capabilities of the organization.
  1. Quick wins are very important. Making a visible change quickly creates credibility and momentum. With so much on the CIO’s plate, a clear, prioritized road map is a necessary early step to make the strategy real. Otherwise, you’ll quickly run out of the capacity and energy to make things happen.
  1. One of the most important aspects of CIOs’ future successes is the quality of the tech team they assemble, particularly the members of their leadership teams. You’ll never drive transformation on modern tech topics (such as agile and next-gen infrastructure) with leaders steeped in traditional ways of working and legacy technologies.

Leaders driven by change

Finding the right leaders who can lead change of this magnitude will require what we call transformational leadership.

Transformational leaders have some definite characteristics and capabilities They can provide specific direction, but can also empower their teams to explore and innovate.

Able to apply analytical rigour and due diligence to decision making, these leaders are still able to scan the horizon to help the organisation imagine, envision, and ultimately create a sustainable, successful future.

They are able to gather the views and perspectives of others while still listening to their inner conscience and principles to inform sound judgement.

Transformational leadership speaks with a clear and inspiring voice that is heard, but leaves space for others.

We saw leaders like these in our 2020 Global Leadership Confidence Index research. Of the 15% of leaders who inspired confidence to lead through disruption change, they were defined by a mindset that is comfortable with change, not cowed by it, and have shown that tendency in their experience to date (a useful way to assess their suitability.)

They have the vision and the initiative to seize opportunities. Many are doing so even in the current difficult circumstances, driving a steady pace of constant evolution even as the ground moves beneath their feet.

Even in a crisis, they take decisions quickly, but thoughtfully, and identify and seize on innovative, resourceful solutions to immediate and critical issues. They display character traits such as humility, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, compassion, and empathy.

A CIO like this has a magnetic effect, charismatic and motivational for their teams, their colleagues, and customers. Whatever the obstacles.

We understand that individuals at the helm of important programmes like this at public organizations are constantly under the unique scrutiny of the public. The quality of their work on behalf of the public interest cannot be expressed in figures alone.

If you are looking for leaders who have the qualities to succeed, or you’d like to discuss your career, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.