Current Research Project

Digital Transformation at the Local Tier of Government in Europe: Dynamics and Effects from a Cross-Countries and Over-Time Comparative Perspective (DIGILOG)

Reto Steiner is principal investigator of this research project, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Lead Agency) and German Research Foundation (volume: 1.1 Mio. CHF), together with Professor Sabine Kuhlmann and Isabella Proeller from University of Potsdam and Professor Renate Meyer from Vienna University of Economics and Business). Duration: 2022-2025

Digital transformation constitutes one of the most important innovations at the local level of government and is expected to reshape local service delivery, public administration, and governance in Europe fundamentally. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the fundamental importance of a well-prepared digital administration to replace analog processes, not only but most urgently needed in times of physical distancing. In many countries, local government is the most significant tier of public service delivery, ensuring proximity to citizens and a key player of digital transformation.

Against this background, it is a matter of concern and criticism that in current comparative research concerning the digital transformation of state and administration, local levels of government have been insufficiently investigated. Indeed, there is no systematic, cross-countries comparative knowledge available regarding the state of implementation and the effects of digital transformation at local government level in Europe. This collaborative research project is intended to remedy those deficits. Its first main research questions address the dynamics, scale, and pace of digital transformation in European local government, i.e., to what extent there has been radical/rapid revolutionary or gradual/slow evolutionary change and how and why these dynamics differ when considered from a cross-countries and inter-municipal perspective. The second main research question addresses the (intended and unintended) effects of digitalization on local self-government in Europe in terms of outputs (service delivery, organization, processes, and human resources), outcomes (performance and accountability), and impacts (citizens' acceptance, governance, new cleavages). The independent variables include explanatory factors on the macro-level (institutional properties of the local government systems), meso-level (internal organizational arrangements and procedures), and micro-level (actor strategies, interests, motives).

The project will generate coherent data for a systematic comparison using methodological triangulation, i.e., quantitative and qualitative methods. It will take the form of a regular and automated quantitative survey of all local authorities in 47 European countries (members of the Council of Europe), based on web crawling and machine learning techniques - this is a novel approach in the context of the social sciences - and qualitative research, namely case studies in selected European countries. Renowned scholars from ZHAW, the University of Potsdam, and the Vienna University of Economics and Business, with extensive experience in local government and comparative research, form the consortium of this project.

Key deliverables of the project will be an openly accessible monitoring platform of digital transformation at the local tier of government, journal articles, an edited volume, and publications for practitioners. The real-time platform "Monitoring Digital Transformation in European Local Governments" is accessible to researchers and practitioners worldwide and contributes to a better understanding of long-term developments. The duration of the project being is three years; however, by automating the process, the real-time platform will continue to exist and be updated regularly beyond this timeframe. The research project will yield policy-relevant knowledge concerning local digitalization measures from a European perspective, which can then be utilized to improve policymaking for future public sector modernization.

Selected Completed Research Projects

Local Autonomy and Local Public Sector Reforms

Reto Steiner was co-chair of this research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Reforms at the Local Tier of Government were analyzed. 3 PhD students worked at this project. Duration: 2016-2021.

Local Government Performance and Reforms in Switzerland

Reto Steiner was chair of this research project, funded by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. All municipalities in Switzerland were surveyed, focussing on their reform activitites and financial and institutional health (Sixth monitoring of the Swiss municipalities). Duration: 2015-2017.

Local Public Sector Reforms: An International Comparison ('LocRef') - EU COST Action IS 1207

Reto Steiner was a member of the Management Committee und Co-Chair of the module "Territorial and Functional Rescaling". The aim of this project was the analysis of intermunicipal co-operation and amalgamation reforms at the local tier of government in Europe Duration: 2013-2017.

Public Sector Organizations in Switzerland

Reto Steiner was a member of the Management Committee of EU COST Action IS601. The aim of this project was the analysis of autonomy and control of govermnetal agencies in Europe. Reto Steiner analyzed the situation in Switzerland. Duration: 2009-2013.