Rural communities, in addition to large corporations and government entities, are also undergoing digital transformation.The "Ma commune" association has recently launched a training program for elected officials and municipal employees, and the challenge also applies to SMEs, as explained by Alexander Sollberger, the association's president.
According to a survey conducted by the Swiss Association of Communes in partnership with "Ma commune", 97% of representatives from 760 Swiss municipalities see digitalization as a real opportunity. However, 60% of them admit to being "behind" in this regard, and only 2% consider their municipality as a pioneer. Founded in 2018 to help municipalities improve quality of life and strengthen economic attractiveness, "Myni Gmeind" (My community) launched "Digital-Pioniers" last year, a two-day training aimed at better understanding the digital transition. SECO, in particular the New Regional Policy Division, contributes to this training as a member of the programme commission by providing speakers and reporting on the activities surrounding the "Digital Pioneer" and the "Myni Gmeind" association. The issue also concerns SMEs as municipalities seek to acquire better digital tools and knowledge in order to increase their economic attractiveness. Currently only available in German, the training will be extended to French-speaking Switzerland from October 2023.
How can the better use of technology by municipalities improve their attractiveness to businesses?
Alexander Sollberger: The main challenge is to simplify administrative procedures, such as obtaining permits. During a "Digital-Pioneers" course, a participant cited a concrete example: to open a restaurant, the operator had to visit nine authorities, often in physical offices. With the implementation of online service portals bringing together municipalities and cantons, businesses will be able to request all necessary authorizations with just a few clicks, similar to the services offered by EasyGov.
Can this digital attractiveness compensate for the lack of competitiveness due to other factors such as poor transportation infrastructure, for example?
Sollberger: Yes, digital transformation is a great opportunity for rural municipalities and mountain regions. For example, online professional meetings encourage remote work, which reduces the relocation of labor to urban centers. In addition, projects such as "Digitale Dorfstrasse Adelboden" (ed.: an e-commerce website bringing together the village's shopkeepers. This project was jointly supported by the Confederation and the Canton of Bern as part of the New Regional Policy (NRP), for more information see regiosuisse.ch) contribute to strengthening the attractiveness of local craftsmanship and maintain value creation in the village. Hybrid grocery stores are also emerging in some Valais hamlets. Thanks to a simple technological solution, customers can, for example, shop autonomously outside of opening hours, often concentrated in the morning.
Does a digital divide exist between urban and rural areas?
Sollberger: Rural municipalities are not necessarily worse off than urban municipalities when it comes to digital transition. Isolated regions have many pioneers who are mobilizing to make progress on this issue. Some municipalities manage to create concrete benefits for the population and businesses, such as digitizing administrative procedures or improving public services such as waste management. However, we do observe that cities and large municipalities generally have more resources – especially in terms of personnel, such as hiring a Chief Digital Officer – to implement this transition.
Basic knowledge is not enough to achieve a high level of digitalization. Shouldn't we go further by offering continuing education, for example?
Sollberger: The "Digital-Pionier" basic course consists of five modules and meets the current major needs of many municipalities. The goal is to teach the fundamental aspects of digital transformation without overburdening the schedule of personnel. Administrative staff, in particular, are often already working at the limits of their capacity, and digitalization represents a colossal additional task. In this context, a several-month-long continuing education program would have a rather discouraging effect. Our goal is to remove obstacles, not to create new ones. Moreover, universities of applied sciences now offer CAS (Continuing Education Certificate) programs focused on digitalization. Our objective is not to compete with them.
The "Digital Pioneer" training is primarily aimed at elected officials and municipal employees. Shouldn't business stakeholders also be involved?
Sollberger: The courses are open to anyone from the community ecosystem, and representatives of businesses are welcome too! However, as an association dedicated to local administrations, we primarily address issues that concern municipalities. Digital transformation in the public sector does not aim to achieve the same objective as in private entities. It is not about digitizing commercial processes, but about creating and managing tools for the population to facilitate and strengthen its interactions with local authorities.