Digitalisation / Change management – Promoting a Culture of Digitalisation
Case Studies
Policy Areas


Cultural change management paves the way for successful smart city initiatives. Staff in government departments can often be reluctant to change for a number of reasons – whether it is a lack of suitable skillsets, the extra workload involved, or concerns around privacy and sharing of proprietary data. Citizens may also refuse change in cases where they distrust technology and fail to see its benefits. City governments have to predict such opposition and work hard to ensure proper uptake of beneficiary technologies in the smart city process.

The first step is to align government leaders with the overall vision and objectives of the digitalisation/smart city agenda. Involving leaders and getting their support from the outset ensures that any smart initiative can be sustained, even in cases where there are changes in the political climate. Estonia, for example, approved the Principles of Estonian Information Policy in 1997, requiring all government departments to submit annual plans on how they would support IT policy.[i] This broad and comprehensive regulation played a key role in helping the country establish a collective effort that transcended any individual party-political interests.

After effectively coordinating departmental leaders, it is important to take proactive measures, such as providing training to boost digital literacy and helping municipal staff to adapt to the digital working environment. For instance, the use of e-government requires city staff to learn and become accustomed to online systems; there may be critical skills gaps if adequate training is lacking. City governments should also raise awareness and educate staff about the positive impacts of digital solutions on their ways of working (such as potential improvements in efficiency and greater citizen satisfaction).

As such changes are being realised, it is critical to monitor progress and performance. By adopting assessment criteria, such as key performance indicators or compliance metrics, cities will better understand how employees adhere to the change plan and what can be improved or done differently. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro, while the government sought to upgrade the city’s digital infrastructure, municipal staff were periodically evaluated on a set of performance indicators, and their salaries varied according to their assessment.[ii]

Another essential aspect of change management is helping citizens and private companies adapt to smart services and solutions, namely raising public awareness and changing attitudes. Cities can use a variety of tools such as regulations, incentives and communication campaigns to achieve this goal.

Resource implications and key requirements

To promote changes in the public sector, city leadership should demonstrate a clear and consistent vision of the city’s smart agenda, as well as a commitment to delivering the necessary change. A dedicated committee or lead department, backed by mayoral executive power, can be a good way to manage an integrated work unit of different city agencies. For example, in Rio’s Operations Centre, the mayor coordinated city staff from more than 30 municipal departments with clear executive orders, forging a close relationship with Operations Centre staff. In this way, the city leader could also oversee implementation and directly monitor progress.[iii]

It is also critical that there is reliable support from technical teams overseeing any new digital systems. For this reason, there must always be adequate funding earmarked for IT skills. Moreover, government IT departments must be properly empowered to work across various agencies, and to assist them with properly integrating digital technologies into municipal services. For instance, when Chicago adopted a cloud system to implement its open-data initiative, a dedicated chief data officer was assigned to oversee implementation, along with specialist data coordinators in every agency to assist practical system-related tasks. [iv] These steps prepared the city for the coming technical transformation, including the migration of the operating system and the maintenance of datasets.

When it comes to promoting change more widely across the public and private sectors, enforcing regulations can be particularly important. City governments will often need to impose regulations in line with national law, especially when it comes to data privacy and security, and these standards can then be mainstreamed into the operations of private companies. The authorities in Taipei, for example, have imposed regulations on the cybersecurity levels of various organisations. For companies involved in maintaining and operating critical infrastructure and services, the regulations require them to conduct cybersecurity health diagnoses and security detection once every two years.[v] Those that fail to comply will face fines and be obliged to implement changes immediately.

Other measures that are critical for encouraging change in wider society include financial incentives and clear dissemination of information. Financial incentives are particularly important when implementing initiatives that incur costs to be borne by citizens (such as smart-meter installation costs). The Estonian city of Tartu, for instance, provided subsidies as well as soft loans to finance the adoption of a smart home system, comprising smart meters that monitored utilities.[vi] It also held workshops and community meetings and published brochures to teach the residents how to use the smart home system to reduce utility bills and lead a greener life. [vii]

Potential private-sector participation

There are various ways in which the private sector can help promote and adopt a culture of digitalisation in cities. Private companies, and particularly Big Tech, are often the creators and first adopters of leading technologies, thus playing an inherent role in promoting the digital agenda through media and public life. They are also key players and technological innovators for shaping the future of public service delivery, with many start-ups increasingly focused on upgrading and redesigning how governments will operate in the digital world. In the United Kingdom for example, leading business accelerator and incubator, PUBLIC, targets, identifies and invests in government-focused technology companies that have the potential to radically transform public services.[viii]

Projects such as municipal open data initiatives can also be used to invite private companies to interact with citizens and government, in identifying municipal challenges and potential solutions. In Chicago for example, the government’s open-data portal provides information on which communities and businesses can come together with local civil society for constructive discussions on potential policy options.[ix]  Based on citizens’ and stakeholder suggestions, city staff are equipped to know when issues arise in both their open-data portal and their policymaking. [x]

Such projects shift citizens’ roles from reactive to proactive and can be done in a variety of ways, such as cloud-sharing and mobile technology, or more traditional methods, such as in-person meetings and telephone hotlines. A city government’s mission is to create channels of communication that facilitate the exchange of information. For example, Rio’s Operations Centre uses social media, online software and a citizen’s hotline to communicate with residents, improving operational efficiency and public participation.

Obstacles to implementation and potential solutions

Cities may face reluctance to change in the public sector. City staff may resist adopting a new system or be unwilling to collaborate with other departments because of the extra workload involved, or a lack of commitment to the initiative. To overcome these obstacles, the city can offer training that enhances IT literacy and help staff to assimilate into a smart working environment.

Smart city initiatives may also encounter resistance from citizens. If people refuse to use digitalised public services, the authorities first need to understand why before providing further communication and incentives to improve adoption.  Having various communication channels, such as a hotline, community meetings or online communities, can help disseminate information and establish a more accommodating ecosystem.

The lack of user-friendly systems is also a common issue that deters citizens from using e-government services. To improve their e-services, city governments should often solicit ideas from the public and act on their suggestions. In Estonia, the government portal e-Estonia has been particularly successful in making public services more intuitive and efficient.[xi] This has only been achieved thanks to years of citizen-participation in the design process, and repeated efforts to make the service as fool-proof as possible. Without this, citizens may revert to face-to-face services or become dissatisfied with the government’s smart city initiatives.

A final way that city governments can tackle low technological uptake is by identifying and collaborating with key stakeholders in the private sector. In Estonia, the government promoted its e-Estonia digital ID card by cooperating with banks and telecom companies where, for security reasons, the digital ID was the preferred means of personal identification.[xii] It motivated citizens to replace old ID cards with digital ones.


[i] Centre for Public Impact (2019), e-Estonia, the information society since 1997. Available at:

[ii] C. Schreiner (2016) “International case studies of smart cities.” Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank. Available at:

[iii] C. Schreiner (2016) “International case studies of smart cities.” Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank. Available at:

[iv] S. Thornton (2013) “A Profile of Technology and Innovation in Chicago”, Data-Smart City Solutions, 11 April 2013. Available at:

[v] National Information and Communication Security Taskforce (2019) “Regulations on Classification of Cyber Security Responsibility Levels,” Taipei. Available at:

[vi] SmartEnCity (n.d.) “Tartu Retrofitting Package”, Tartu, Estonia. Available at:

[vii] SmartEnCity (n.d.) “Citizen Engagement (Tartu) ‒ Technical consultations and community meetings”, Tartu, Estonia. Available at:


[ix] National League of Cities (2014) “City Open Data Policies,” Washington, DC. Available at:

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Lehte Roots (2017) “E Governance in Providing Public Services: the Case of Estonia”, Tallinn: Tallinn University of Technology, School of Business and Governance, Department of Law. Available at: