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Covid vs. Digitalization Results of a survey in North Rhine-Westphalia’s local governments

Public Policy
Comparative Perspective
Policy Change
Christopher Niederelz
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Christopher Niederelz
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Phillip Nguyen
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Marco Wähner
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Andreas Braun
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Dennis Friess
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Maria Becker
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Regina Stodden
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
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Abstract

Authors: Christopher Niederelz, Phillip Nguyen, Marco Wähner, Andreas Braun Dennis Frieß, Maria Becker, Regina Stodden The ongoing Covid19 pandemic has turned traditional processes, certainties and structures upside-down in a very short time. However, these disruptions offer a wide range of opportunities for learning and change. In particular, the pandemic has given a massive boost to digitization. Thus, digital information, communication and organization are suddenly gaining in importance in all areas of life. Does this also hold true for public administrations? This study analyses the digitalization of local administrations in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), focusing on potential processes of change fostered by the Covid19 pandemic. Empirically, the study draws on an online survey send to all digitization officers (and comparable positions) from local governments in NRW (N=396) in fall 2020. The response from 122 municipalities provides good representation of the all municipalities in the most populous German state. Against the background of organizational theories of change, the data collected allows conclusions to be drawn for the first time on the status and development of administrative digitization before, during and after the Covid19 pandemic. The results show that the Covid19 pandemic had a significant impact on the working processes in most of the local administrations. The data also reveals how certain ways of working have changed. For example, a massive increase in mobile working and home office, the normalization of video conferences as well as the digitalization of citizens relations. Even though the administrators report that the change process trigger by the pandemic has largely worked well for local administrations in NRW, the survey also reveals some problem areas. The main barriers to digitization reported are limited financial and technical resources (e.g. missing mobile devices such as laptops), legal uncertainties (e.g. taking documents at home) and persistence within the upper management (reluctant superiors). The resent data also allows to draw some conclusions on the state of the art in terms of digitalization in local administration which significantly differs between the municipals. Further analysis suggests a positive correlation between the pre-pandemic status of digitalization and the reported smoothness of transition to new digital working methods. The size of the municipal (population) seems not to affect coping with the pandemic. Further findings suggest a positive correlation between the pre-pandemic status of digitalization and the resilience by which we refer to way of coping with pandemic situation with regard to daily work flow. With regard to future developments respondents expect digital work modes to continue after the pandemic and advancement in digitization overall. Looking specifically at public participation, the findings suggest that it will increasingly take place online. The paper will discuss these and other findings in more detail and will put a strong focus on potential variables which are able to explain the way administrations managed to cope with the pandemic triggered digitalisation processes.