Digital Government: Public acceptance on the rise

The confidence of the Swiss population in the digital services provided by state authorities increased slightly during the coronavirus crisis. This openness to online services is an opportunity for the federal government, cantons and communes: it is important to harness this momentum and further reduce the barriers to using e-government services. The first step in this process is to further streamline and optimise the existing processes both for the population and the civil servants administering them.

Right from the start of the coronavirus crisis, one administrative service in Switzerland came under particular scrutiny: 1.9 million workers tried to register to receive compensation for short-time work. When this service came into use it soon emerged that it was not sufficiently digitised. The registration process involved numerous so-called media breaks. For example forms could not be submitted electronically but had to be printed out on paper and posted to the authorities. An opportunity lost. In its “E-Government Strategy 2020-2023”, the Federal Council stated that “the federal government, cantons and communes should offer digital services to businesses and the public at large in a user-friendly, target-group-oriented, standardised and efficient way.” Nonetheless it is a common complaint that although services are available from the various administrative departments, they are often hard to find or understand. “Digital first” works differently.

Acceptance of digital services remains constant or has actually increased

The population would be willing to use electronic government services, even and especially after the coronavirus crisis. According to Deloitte’s current “Digital Government Survey 2020”, acceptance of digital government services by the vast majority of respondents during the pandemic has largely remained unchanged (73%). One in ten stated that their trust in these online services had even increased, especially among those under-thirty and those living in urban centres, groups that are generally recognised as “early adopters” of digital services.

Confidence in digital services since the coronavirus crisis

Even before the pandemic, the majority of the Swiss population was ready for more federal, cantonal and communal electronic services. In the “National E-Government Study 2019“ 47% of respondents said that if they could use an electronic ballot box, they would vote more often. Almost 70% of respondents believed that e-voting should be available to all voters. The study also showed that current demand among the population, and in particular among businesses, for electronic government services is only partially covered by the existing offering. A glance at individual services shows that demand among users is high, but far from all municipalities and cantons offer these services online.

Attitudes towards digital services have improved

Almost a third of people (31%) have changed their attitudes towards digital services positively, here too the under-thirty-year-olds and the city dwellers express even greater approval. On the other hand, more than one in two people (59%) has not changed their opinion of these services and their use. The proportion of the population who said they had not changed their opinion is even slightly higher among the elderly and the rural population.

The coronavirus crisis and digital services

At the same time, however, more and more older people are using online services. Thus, the vast majority of the Swiss population (90%) is positive towards e-government services. At the same time, however, more and more older people are using online services. Overall, the corona crisis has had a positive impact on trust and attitudes towards the online services of the authorities.

The majority of civil servants favour more digital external services and internal processes

The majority of Swiss civil servants also want more digital external services for citizens (34%) and an expansion of digitised internal processes (16%). However, a relatively high proportion (39%) sees no additional need for digital processes or services, with a higher than average number among workers in the health and social services sectors.

Numerous digital applications already exist in the health sector that simplify processes in clinics and medical practices and improve communications between doctors and patients. There are greater limits to digitisation here more than in other sectors. In the nursing professions in particular, they can usually only be used for administrative tasks. Remote working is simply impossible in personal care because it is necessary to work directly with people.

In essence, since the coronavirus crisis, civil servants have been willing to change their way of working in order to increase the range of external digital services. The willingness to change the way of working increased by 38% of those surveyed with 43% saying their level of willingness had not changed. Openness to change actually declined among 19% of government workers.

Change in work practices since the coronavirus crisis

For those civil servants whose openness to change has declined, why do they not have a more positive view to increased digitisation of their work processes? Is it due to a lack of IT skills? Or perhaps the fear of having more work to do? Or maybe the answer lies in slow-moving conservative structures or a lack of technical equipment?

On closer inspection, it quickly becomes evident that there are tangible reasons for the negative or indifferent attitude towards further digitisation of e-government services. Many workers found they were unable to exploit the benefits of digitised services from their own home offices. They were unable to work digitally from home because they simply lacked the tools to do so - besides the desktops installed in their offices, there were not enough mobile devices such as laptops available. The swift purchase of this equipment would have caused additional high costs in the short term. In addition, in some cases, important printed documents could not be taken home.

Whatever the reasons for the declining willingness among some civil servants, civil authorities and administrations must seize the opportunity afforded by the crisis to raise awareness of the benefits of expanding digital services for their employees. Staff need more information and better training. Training can take place on the basis of already installed systems. The available options simply need to be better exploited.  

The general legal conditions and (lack of) IT hardware and software are the biggest hurdles

The current hurdles to the digitisation of external services are not hard to identify in the opinion of those surveyed. There are three key factors for external services: the general legal conditions (37%), IT hardware and software (30%) and the physical infrastructure (14%).

Hurdles to the digitisation of external services

How can these hurdles be further reduced with relatively little cost and effort? By streamlining the regulations, rules and laws that inhibit digitisation. However, changing the legal framework can take some time. Speedy implementation is particularly important and possible during the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has given rise to a situation in which many changes can be implemented very quickly all at once. This opportunity must be exploited. Acquiring more hardware and providing employees with laptops across the board can happen faster than implementing legal changes. However, the associated costs are high.

The quickest fix is the quickest win

A focus on processes and how these can be simplified is much more promising. This does not require a long-term development of completely new IT systems: New electronic forms that eliminate the need for printing and mailing and a few new smart software tools could reduce the number of media breaks in the process. There would be no need to build a new IT landscape, buy hardware or change laws. Processes in particular could be improved quickly. Here too, the quickest fix promises the quickest wins. The majority of the population and civil servants are open to and ready for this optimisation of digital services. Such changes can be achieved in a matter of weeks, as the crisis has shown. For example, the Office of Economic and Labour Affairs (AWA) for the Canton of Zurich digitised the short-time working process within just a few weeks.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the AWA reported a “massive” increase in pre-registrations for short-time work. Whilst normally the office had to process around ten applications per month, the number skyrocketed to 30,000. The department was quickly expanded with employees from other departments and even from the federal government, as the process required a lot of manual intervention which is why a more efficient solution was needed. A digital form with automated data transfer to the federal accounting system is now used to process short-term work registrations, which the AWA and the cantonal Office for Computer Services have developed in conjunction with the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco). According to the Department of Economic Affairs, the increase in efficiency thanks to digital support is up to 85 per cent. It stated that Zurich was happy to share these helpful applications with other cantons.

The example shows that the efficiencies gained from digitisation can be enormous and implemented within a short time. The general population and civil service employees are ready.

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The online survey was conducted between 16 and 25 May 2020. It is representative by age, gender and region. The survey covered 1,500 people resident in Switzerland.

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