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Municipal Offices – Ready for the (Digital) Future?

Prof. Dr. Sabine Kuhlmann and Christian Schwab. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Prof. Dr. Sabine Kuhlmann and Christian Schwab. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Administrative scientists at the University of Potsdam analyze the state of municipal offices in Germany and how digitalization is finding its way into them. Together with researchers from the University of Bochum, Prof. Sabine Kuhlmann and her colleague Christian Schwab surveyed all German municipalities with more than 15,000 inhabitants. Using interviews and standardized surveys, they examine how citizens and employees assess the performance of municipal offices and the role of digital services.

For years, Berlin's municipal offices have been overwhelmed by visitors due to a lack of personnel. Berlin is not part of the research project (funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation) that examines the situation of the municipal offices in the German territorial states, “but we still want to include ‘problematic cases’ of municipal offices to show reform options,” says Kuhlmann. She is an expert on municipal research in Germany and Europe.

The research project “Situation of Municipal Offices in Germany” will run for three years (2017-2019). “Field access was a particular challenge,” Kuhlmann says. “Prominent municipal associations, such as the German Association of Cities, initially rejected the survey. They were probably afraid of negative headlines and did not want to draw more public attention to the bottlenecks in these offices.” Kuhlmann had not experienced such a clear obstruction to her research before. “But the research project does not work without the involvement of the municipalities. After all, mayors and chairpersons of staff councils had to be interviewed in about 780 municipalities.”

Despite the initial boycott of the umbrella organization and some regional associations, many cities ultimately answered the questionnaire. “We have a good return rate,” summarizes Christian Schwab, who is primarily concerned with digitalization in municipal offices. “Over 30% of the mayors and 35% of the staff councils took part in the standardized survey.” Like Kuhlmann, he does understand the reluctance of the German Association of Cities and other leading associations. “Their job is to protect the municipalities from unnecessary burdens,” says Prof. Kuhlmann.

In this respect, she understands that the municipalities are not able to constantly participate in surveys. Nevertheless, she suggests a differentiated view. “The municipalities should differentiate between a bachelor thesis and research by scholars who have been working in municipal research for decades and that also to the benefits the municipalities.” To prevent their research being hindered, Kuhlmann strives to immediately engage municipalities and their associations in a fundamental dialogue. “This will ensure the necessary support for municipal research in the long term,” she is convinced.

Citizens still have to personally go to the office

Christian Schwab has been working in Potsdam at the Chair of Political Science, Administration, and Organization since 2013. He is interested in the state of digitalization in municipal offices. In addition to the online survey, Schwab conducted 22 interviews in four cities in Baden-Württemberg to find out how digital the work in municipal offices actually is. “Over 70% of the information is already digitally available,” says the scientist. “On the other hand, there are still problems when citizens want to use services without having to visit the office. Only 5-10% of the tasks can be done without personal contact. For example, applying for residential parking permits and registration or re-registration of motor vehicles can be usually done digitally.” Schwab takes a deep breath and takes stock. “There is still a lot of room for improvement. Not one service of municipal offices is digital nationwide.”

The aspect of digitalization was subsequently included in the research project on municipal offices. It has received special funding from the Hans Böckler Foundation “not only because the topic is currently discussed a lot, but above all because the effects of digitalization on work processes and employees in municipal offices is underresearched,” Kuhlmann clarifies. “We want to know to what extent citizens are benefitting from digitalization,” Schwab adds.

In the final stretch of the project, a representative citizen survey and an employee survey will be conducted in selected cities. “Here, again, getting access is a challenge,” says Kuhlmann. “We already have three cities – in the West. But we are still on the lookout for cities in eastern Germany.” The aim is not only to analyze flagship communities but also to present average cases and perhaps even troubled municipal offices. “But the latter ones don’t want anyone looking over their shoulders.”

Digitalization of administration is still in its infancy

The administrative scientists hope to also set inspiring tones for the field of digitalization. “The classics – like opening hours and friendliness – are still considered important. The municipal offices rarely have electronic-based services on their radar.” In his dissertation, Schwab wants to identify the barriers to digitalization. Often, for example, server architecture, IT specialists, or even funding are lacking. Kuhlmann adds that the political and legal framework has yet to be created.

The birth certificate is still considered a key document but does not exist in digital form. “That’s why citizens have to go personally to the office.” Here, the legislature could remedy the situation by adapting regulations without compromising data protection. “You always have to think from the point of view of the user,” Kuhlmann argues. “They failed to do so for the electronic identity card. Here digitalization happened at the expense of the citizens because they were supposed to buy the reader themselves and set it up at home without knowing exactly how it worked and what it could be used for.”

The researchers at the University of Potsdam are therefore not surprised that the electronic procurement of the identity card failed to take off initially. The project is also interested in finding out how to prevent digitalization increasing employees’ workload because being permanently available and flooded with email could mean more stress.

At this point, Professor Kuhlmann hopes to be able to derive suggestions for future models and processes from the empirical findings. “Personal advice will always be indispensable despite digitalization. Especially in case of more complex administrative procedures or elderly people, personal contact remains important. “The two researchers are convinced that digitalization of the administration is a wide field that still needs to be examined.


Situation of Municipal Offices in Germany
Participating: Prof. Sabine Kuhlmann and Christian Schwab (University of Potsdam) and Prof. Jörg Bogumil and Sascha Gerber (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
Funding: Hans Böckler Foundation
Duration: 2016–2019


Prof. Sabine Kuhlmann studied social sciences. Since 2013, she has been Professor of Political Science, Public Administration, and Organization at the University of Potsdam.

Christian Schwab studied administrative sciences, political science, and business management. Since 2013, he has been a research assistant at the chair of Political Science, Public Administration, and Organization at the University of Potsdam.

Text: Silke Engel
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online: Marieke Bäumer
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde