Public innovation in the process of e-Government and e-Participation introduction


In an era of innovation when e-Government has a prominent place on the public agenda in different countries, Tereza Cahlikova decided to focus her PhD research on the digitalisation of Swiss public administrations, questioning why the adoption rate of modern information and communication technologies by the public sector has been comparatively low over the last years. 

She found that the utility or convenience for citizens is largely missing from the discourse of public servants when it comes to the introduction of e-Government and e-Participation. According to her research, the projects that are successfully implemented are in many cases dependant on the personal experience and beliefs of the relevant project managers. The ability of the Confederation and of the Cantons to develop new services that can spread beyond one specific governmental body has also proven to be limited.

This results in the monopoly of public administrations on public service delivery losing ground to private companies or groups of citizens that are becoming increasingly active in the process of public administration reform. This phenomena has already been observed abroad, one of the best examples being Code for America, a bottom-up organisation bringing together 30’000 coders committed to delivering better digital public services.

The digitalisation of public services and of communication with citizens is nowadays firmly on the agenda of Swiss public administrations. The introduction of the so-called “e-Government” or “cyberadministration” is guided by strategies and roadmaps elaborated by federal, cantonal and municipal authorities. The most important of these is the Swiss e-Government Strategy, which defines principles guiding the introduction of e-Government on the three government levels. However, even though Switzerland is on top of technological innovation in the private sector and the high level of technological and human development offers seemingly perfect conditions for innovative processes in the country, the public sector has been comparatively reluctant to modernise its functioning with the use of information and communication technologies. The advancement of key e-Government projects is not as fast and coherent as expected at the beginning of the process. This difference between conception and reality is even more tangible in case of initiatives falling under the scope of e-Participation and e-Democracy.

Practically, e-Government translates into the digitalisation of public services with the aim of facilitating their delivery for citizens, who would be no longer obliged to approach the concerned public office personally, but instead could pass their command directly online. The introduction of such practices was inspired by developments in the private sector, where the possibility to obtain services and products online has become more of a rule than an exception. Whereas e-Government deals with the output side of relations between citizens and public administrations, the other two groups of digital innovations, e-Participation and e-Democracy, focus predominantly on the input side of policy-making process, i. e. participation of citizens in public decision-making.

E-Participation can be understood in terms of citizen participation in policy-making via online tools such as specialised discussion forums and social networks. One of the most important forms of e-Participation is e-consultation (electronic consultation), which aims at collecting input from citizens and stakeholders in the policy initiation phase. The e-consultation procedure therefore resembles the Swiss legislative consultation, which represents the first phase of policy-making process. However, e-consultation does not involve only the unidirectional collection of proposals and comments, but also an interactive element, because different parties can react directly to the propositions of other parties and therefore truly discuss problems at hand in real time.

E-Democracy constitutes the third group of digital initiatives that has taken root in the Swiss public administration. It refers mostly to the digitalisation of already existing democratic and participative practices. In the Swiss context, e-Democracy involves principally the digitalisation of elections (e-Voting) and of referenda (electronic collection of signatures, e-Voting). As in the case of e-Government, e-Participation and e-Democracy development is guided by a strategy formulated by the Federal Chancellery. However, the document was issued in 2011 and has not been updated since. Planned projects, such as the electronic collection of signatures or the digitalisation of consultation procedure have not yet been implemented.

There are several explanations of this comparatively reluctant uptake of e-Government and e-Participation in Switzerland. Because digital initiatives are essentially innovative projects, it is necessary for public administrations to be able to deal with specific characteristics of innovative processes. Conducting innovative projects is, in fact, not intrinsic to public administrations. Risks, uncertainty and unpredictability of consequences and effects that every innovation necessarily brings are not compatible with the environment public administrations work in. The critical eye of the public that scrutinizes the use of public resources represents an important factor that prevents politicians and public officials from undertaking projects that may have harmful effects and result in the loss of public money. Innovations are overall hard to manage in an environment where public resources and politicians’ prestige are at stake. Additionally, high regulation of environment in which public administrations exist and the necessity to comply with different legislative prescriptions often necessitate changes to these regulations that would accommodate the possibility to deliver public services digitally. The conditions in which innovations are implemented are therefore considerably less flexible in the public than private sector. The fact that public administrations often do not have at their disposal the technological know-how necessary for successful development of applications adds to the complexity of the situation. In fact, they often find themselves in the possibly unfavourable position where they are at the “mercy” of private companies that supply them with technological solutions. While these characteristics are to a certain extent applicable to public administrations in different countries, the Swiss context is additionally particular due to the specific character of Swiss political and institutional system, which is based on search for consensus and the system of direct democracy. These two characteristics further cause the policy-making process to be comparatively slow and incremental.

Apart from the environmental and institutional factors that impact on the innovativeness of Swiss public administrations, individual factors seem to play an equally important role in the process of e-Government and e-Participation uptake. Interviews that I conducted in the federal administration as a part of my PhD research point at a number of findings that are relevant for the accomplishment of projects.

  • Due to the lack of demands for digital services and participation from the side of citizens, political support is crucially important for the development of digital projects. One of primordial factors that decide whether a project will be launched is in this connection its potential economic benefit.
    The focal point is in this connection the surprising lack of focus on citizens. In fact, the question of utility or convenience for citizens is largely missing from the discourse of public servants when it comes to the introduction of e-Government and e-Participation. It seems that a change in paradigm toward a different perception of citizens and their relation with public administrations is needed in order to increase the importance of user-friendliness of public service delivery. Relations between public administrations and citizens seems to be in Switzerland still often based on the perception of citizen as a client who has no choice but to approach the relevant public office when in need of a particular public service. However, the monopoly of public administrations on public service delivery is changing as more and more private companies become active in the process of public administration reform. If the delivery of public services by public authorities is deemed inefficient or inconvenient by the people, more private alternatives may appear.
  • The Swiss federalist system, which is typical of important cantonal autonomy in different policy domains, destines e-initiatives to be fragmented and incoherent across different public offices and government levels. The principle of technology transfer that discourages the repeated development of technological solutions serving the same purposes is anchored in the Swiss e-Government Strategy. Its application in practice is, however, very complicated. In policy fields that are within the exclusive competence of cantons federal institutions have none or limited influence over the digitalisation of public services. For this reason, it is often difficult to convince other government levels, or even other federal departments and offices to participate in a project launched by another territorial or departmental entity. The main explanations are seemingly three-fold. Firstly, it is the mistrust of cantons toward the Confederation. Secondly, the tendency of cantons and public bodies in general to present themselves as independent and distinct entities for whom it is unfitting to adopt universal solutions. Thirdly, it is the fear for the loss of image or identity that would follow the adherence to a project proposed by a different entity. As a consequence, the advancement of projects such as e-Voting, e-ID or e-health resembles a market with different technologies where sellers compete for new buyers. Whereas this approach is advantageous because it enables buyers to select the most appropriate technology for their specific situation, it also involves substantial multiplication of financial charges, because applications with the same function are developed several times over.
    The solution to this second obstacle to e-Government and e-Participation is not simple. The principles of Swiss federalism and deeply historically and institutionally rooted and their redefinition is not desirable or feasible. A potential way toward a more coherent uptake of digital initiatives could follow successful experiences with these projects, which would further motivate other entities to implement them as well. Another possible answer could consist in the proposition of “nudges”, which would provide incentives for the adoption of particular official projects. Finally, the inclusion of a large spectrum of potential future project adopters in the project development process could also increase chances at its wider diffusion.
  • The third important finding that emerges from interviews is that the progress of public sector digitalisation depends crucially on the attitudes, preferences and vision of people who are in charge of particular projects. These are formed, for example, based on past experiences, educational background or personal preferences. It seems that if the responsible person is convinced of usability and future success of a particular project, the latter will be implemented. If this is not the case, the project may stay stuck in the conception phase.

In the case of e-Participation, a frequent argument justifying its comparative underdevelopment is that Switzerland does not need electronic forms of participation because it already has the system of direct democracy, which provides everybody with sufficient possibilities to express his/her opinion. Even though this assertion is clearly pertinent, there are certain challenges to the Swiss institutional system that may become more serious in the future. Firstly, it is the low voter turnout that is nowadays observed principally among young people and in the long-term risks to undermine the legitimacy of public-policy making. E-Participation could reverse this trend by providing alternative ways of political participation, which might be more appealing to abstaining voters. Secondly, e-Participation could attenuate risks related to the polarisation of relations between different political parties. In fact, one of the effects of regular citizen participation in policy-making is a partial de-politisation of political sphere in the sense that political parties lose in importance while citizens are empowered. Thirdly, the complexity of current societal problems often surpasses the borders of nation states and necessitates the expertise of different interest groups and stakeholders. The role of e-Participation in this connection consists in the facilitation of multi-party discussion without time and place constraints.

Tereza Cahlikova is a PhD candidate and a member of the staatslabor expert network. She graduated from the Swiss Graduate Institute of Public Administration (IDHEAP) and decided to focus her doctoral research on the analysis of e-Participation and e-Democracy introduction in Switzerland. She is also interested in topics touching the practical implementation of innovations in the public sector.