In this episode Gavin interviews Martin Godel, Head of the Small to Medium-size Enterprise (SME) Division of the Government of Switzerland. Martin is leading the digital transformation across government agencies, cantons (states) and municipalities for business registration in Switzerland.

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Transcript:

Episode introduction

Welcome to Government to Business, the go-to location for executives delivering digital services to business. And now here's your host, Gavin Atkinson.

Gavin: Many governments are bringing together a range of different services around a core customer need. they're breaking down the barriers the way they're actually presenting government to businesses every single day.

Whether this is around government grants, whether it's around, you know, exporting - getting into exporting - or whether it's around starting a business. it's a field that many governments are now getting into when it comes to reorientating the way they do their digital service delivery to business.

And one of those governments are really truly leading the way is the Swiss government where they're bringing together their business licensing and accounts into a single digital platform.

Today I'm being joined by Martin Godel. He is the head of  Division for the State Secretary for Economic Affairs. He is responsible for the delivery of EasyGov which you can find at www.EasyGov.swiss.

Its are all around creating that digital platform for business so that they can securely transact with government they can find out what licensing, what requirements they need to do and they can do that online at the same time.

In this interview Martin will be talking about the key drivers, what they're trying to achieve, some of the key challenges that they've experienced along the way and much, much more. So please sit back and enjoy this interview with Martin Godel from the Swiss government for EasyGov.swiss.

Interview with Martin Godel from Switzerland's EasyGov.swiss

Gavin: We're joined today by Martin Godel who is Switzerland's Head of Small to Medium Enterprise Policy in the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs. And Martin thank you very much for joining me today, I greatly appreciate your time and thank you for setting some time aside for a quick chat.

Martin: Thank you Gavin for inviting me.

Gavin: We've got a bit of a time lag obviously because of you being in Switzerland and myself in Australia so I do apologize in advance to our listeners if in listening to it we have a little gap or we talk over each other. So, it's a wonderful thing about the global economy we can speak from other ends of the world but sometimes the technology goes against us doesn't it? So Martin, I'd be quite interested with a title such as the Head of Small to Medium Enterprise Policy, that's quite an interesting area to be involved in when it comes to to digital government. Can you tell us a little bit around your role and how you lead EasyGov which is Switzerland's digital service delivery platform to business?

Martin: Yes, thank you Gavin for the opportunity to talk about digital government and all the challenges around. Now the primary mission of SME Policy in the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs in Switzerland inglobes a much broader range of issues. It goes, mainly it's about making life easier for companies, cutting red tape, we review any type of revisions of legislations applying to companies in Switzerland and check whether they are suitable for companies that they do not put on too much regulatory cost or even reduce regulatory costs. We set up programs with other agencies, how to make life easier for companies and therefore also increase the attractiveness of the location.

Beside that stream of work, results of the work on SME financing, that is part of it to ensure that there is a good framework condition set up for companies to get access to finance. E-government or digital government comes especially into play regarding the first mission where digital government is one way one, and one important new policy tool to reduce regulatory cost for companies and that's the reason why we set up EasyGov.swiss which is a platform dedicated exclusively to companies.

Gavin: Okay so you've obviously got responsibility then beyond that digital component as you've outlined. I'm actually interested from what you've said there, there are obviously not just the transactional element that's available within EasyGov but I'm assuming that from what you said before about the whole idea about reducing the red tape and regulatory burden on Swiss businesses that in itself is quite an interesting area.

Do you intend to kind of get into that space at a later date within the digital environment?

Martin: You mean personally? I came from a different area I came originally in my career from trade - foreign trade - area and moving then later on into that. And then it's a pretty straightforward progression from trying to cut red tape and review regulations to make it as easy as possible for companies to digital government, because digital government has a lot to offer for making life easier and also to streamline regulation and its execution by agencies.

This becomes very clear when we talk directly with the companies to understand their needs and their problems and very often they are, there of course also, you know, they come for some specific regulation that they do not like or they would like to have changed.

Much more often they are troubled by the execution of a specific regulation. and that's not something that is written into into law or something like that, that's just the practice by the specific agency that determines the way how a regulation is executed and that's where digital government and e-government can add a lot and we believe it can add even more into, in the future because at the moment we're only talking about, you know, setting up these transactions, making it possible to have digital transactions with agencies and so on and so forth.

However later once we have, we are at the point where most of the business to government transactions can be done by electronic means and through a platform with all its advantages then we see secondary and tertiary effects that will help to make regulation better because we can see how to improve regulation where are the, where are the specific troubling points in a specific procedure to address we could we can then also measure what is the time, the length of the procedure that is required, all these kind of things that then go make it possible to have a better grasp on reducing regulatory cost.

Gavin: Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense I guess we're always originally looking at as I know that some governments like the Small Business Administration within the US federal government and a couple of the other states and municipal governments in the United States occasionally they go out and actually have to go through like a large-scale online digital consultation with business around, you know, the areas that are creating problems when it comes to red tape and regulation and how the government can best address that. So that's why suppose I was looking more in that environment for what you explained there makes perfect sense as well.

So I guess in kind of talking around EasyGov and its transactional platform what type of transactions and what type of things can Swiss businesses do with EasyGov?

Martin: Yeah, thank you, EasyGov went live in November 2017 so it's not a long time ago. And it has at the moment a small set of transactions that are possible.

First all the transactions related to setting up a company in Switzerland, so it means registration to the commercial registry, registration to the value-added tax, the accident insurance and all related affairs to setting up a company that you can do from zero to a hundred percent on the website, on this platform.

Then second other commercial register changes and amendments that you would like to make to your existing company's registration. They are not all yet but some additional commercial register changes. Then we have on the tax side certain transactions for registering or extending deadlines. And then last but not least, social insurances and accident insurances in order to, which are compulsory for certain type of companies in order to register and do certain transactions in this area.

So these are the initial ones and what is very important is, you know, we work on an iteration basis so and I'll you can also see that on the website at the moment we are at version 1.0.2.

In order to learn from experience and then do very rather small but iterative changes to add new services, additional services. When I mean services I mean real transactions and this is important when I say the word "transaction" because very often most government websites are information platforms so you can read something about something. You cannot really do it. And on when I mean transactions I mean you really do the legally binding stuff.

Gavin: That makes perfect sense and yeah a number of governments I suppose really grapple with that issue because it's easy politically I guess, to be able to report that we've delivered and put online, you know, two or three thousand services because it's information based services. It's a totally different beast as you mentioned to actually look at that and deliver the transactional element behind that service not just information about the service.

Martin: Absolutely, absolutely. Then there is also an additional element one is in terms of is it one way direction or is it two way direction? And what I mean with one way or two way is is it only that the company can send data or make an application to a government agency through digital means that's one way direction. Or two-way direction, does the government respond and deliver its legally binding decision through the same digital channel back?

At the moment with EasyGov there are only procedures that require one-way communication but the platform is designed in a way that we are able to do also two-way. So the next, other new additional procedures that will come more that we are currently studying will also involve two-way directions so the decisions come back and even that we can track the requests that the company made, where is it and in what stage of handling is it? And of course one day hopefully in some time in the future even to indicate in what time frame he can expect an answer back.

Gavin: Excellent. So what was the actual driver behind all this? Why did the Swiss government say, "We want to be able to bring together all these transactions for Swiss businesses?" Because it is so hard. What was the impetus behind it? What was the strategy?

Martin: Well we are, we have a government and an approach here that is very much oriented towards the real, the needs that are expressed to the, from the companies. We have a very regular exchange, institutionalized exchanged with companies and we also have an extra-parliamentary commission which is called Small and Medium-sized Enterprise Forum where only entrepreneurs are members and we discuss with them all these regulatory questions that I mentioned earlier.

However, we also discuss with them this type of issues and their problems very often came up in the term I explained it before, execution problems, and we saw that this is not a regulatory thing that we can just by changing a law improve. We cannot improve it in this way. And so we came up with different approaches how to do that and when we, when we showed them the concept of such type of a platform and to understand what they think about it and this was of course in a very, very early stage so nothing was technically done or so just conceptualized. They were enormously positive.

Basically, you know, if I say to a company owner, think about a platform where you can do everything and it leads you through, it guides you through each feature, you don't need to know any type of law because every question, everything is made in the way that if you answer the questions fully and correctly that automatically you will abide to the law and and you can, you can know where to address your question because EasyGov, the platform, does not require that you know who is which agency or which government level here in Switzerland with the federal government on the federal level and the cantonal, like a state/province level, and then the municipal level, you don't need to know who is competent for what, but you just do your procedure and it goes to the right place.

And unanimously without any type of political division be it from you know, the left perspective, the middle perspective, the center, the political center or from the right side from the whole political spectrum there was overall support for this.

Gavin: That's fantastic, and it makes sense that, you know, everyone regardless of your politics, whether you're left, center or right, you know, wants to be able to achieve a much better outcome for businesses because that's you know, the driving force of the economy. That if you make it easy for those businesses to start and grow, you're more likely going to see those businesses you know, thrive and start employing and that's exactly what any government regardless of its political color obviously wants to try to achieve.

So it's a great way to come from it. It must have taken a long while to get to that point, did it?

Martin: Yeah and absolutely, and what I would add to it is that we believe that this is part of, will constitute in the future part of the attractiveness of a business location, of a country's direct competitiveness. I mean I know the competitiveness of countries is a difficult topic but when it comes to investment decisions by international or foreign companies if they can see that they will they have the opportunity to do all these kind of things through digital platforms much easier than otherwise. Or than in other places that constitutes competitive advantage. And there is only, I mean everybody or most governments around the world are on this track. Some are a little bit further advanced, some less. But we're all on the same, on the same path which means in a couple of years when an investor wants to go to a country and does not find such types of infrastructure, digital infrastructure around, he might not go there.

He might, it might influence his location decision in a negative way and and even so, the country basically can decide either we will do this, you know so we keep up with everybody else or or we are left behind which has a direct negative influence on the investment attraction of the country. In the future more so than today where we are just in the beginning.

Gavin: Gotcha. So to be able to deliver that starting up phase where business can, you know, apply for its license, apply to register itself with the Swiss government and go through those other services and transactions you mentioned before, that obviously requires some form of you know, identity management and being able to show and demonstrate that yes, you are this particular individual and you were wanting to set up this particular company or whatever form of business entity it happens to be. That's not a difficult task because over the last say 20 years, you know, every single government department has gone off and created its own account, created its own identity to be able to manage those transactions with business.

Could you tell me a little bit about the story behind how you address that issue of being able to bring together these services under a single identity or process?

Martin: Yes, well to say first this is not the end of the story at what I'm going to tell you because we are, we're all still on the way.

First yes on EasyGov every person as a person has a digital identity and at the moment this digital identity is then when you log in you have to authenticate with a mobile number so, two level factor authentication, so that's one important element so every person has an identity then, but that is created directly on the platform itself independently of any other government agency or so on.

Then second what is also very important in addition is that how do you actually work as a company there because one thing is that you as a person are on a platform but are you actually in the position, do you have the competency and all the rights to act for your company? Which is a whole other thing so when somebody registers himself personally on the website then he has to say if he wants to act for a company there he has to say, okay I would like to act for Company X and then there is a whole onboarding procedure which requires the agreement, the written agreement by the people who according to the commercial registry have the right to act for the company to provide all the rights to that person to a general administrator on this platform to act for the company.

So that's, those are two quite important procedures. In Switzerland we do have one strong and very effective tool for identity, for a strong identity including electronic signature which is legally accepted which is called the Swiss ID.

However the Swiss ID, this ID is not very, not many people use it, not many people have it at this moment. And we hope that in the next three or four years with the new law on digital identity the number of strong identities will increase which will make life on all the platforms and also on this platform much easier. However at this point in time either you use the Swiss ID or you just go through this authentication procedure I indicated before.

But very important, do you have an identity as a person and then you have this onboarding procedure for being able to work as a company. And then in addition, of course once you have set that up then is the whole management of rights. A very important element that this general manager or the general admin of the platform for one particular company he can give rights to other persons and other persons can register themselves also individually on the platform and then connect to that company where they get the rights for.

This is also very important for fiduciaries, for lawyers for all kinds of support business that very often did or do for companies certain business to government transactions so they can work on the same platform and the company directly sees what's going on and what they are doing there. At the moment these rights are I would say pretty general in this 1.0 version, you basically have to write that it can give just to do either read or write on it or be another general manager something like that. Or in the future we will then also add more granular services, more granular identity rights which means that the general admin can say, "Okay, you just have to write to look into all tax issues but not into for instance the commercial registry stuff. And you have only the right for this procedure but not for the other procedure." So this we will add over time.

Gavin: To be able to deliver all that and obviously you had the service up and running now for two months you would have received some customer feedback I assume around that whole process and the experience. What type of feedback have you been receiving from your business customers on that?

Martin: Well at the moment we have a few feedback we got is that the registration procedure was quite long, quite long, and that I think is absolutely justified that you know lots of questions were asked and so on and we will, that will be one of the new releases of the technical releases we will do in the next one or two months to make that procedure for the individual registration a little bit more easy, a little more easier.

However, this is also something interesting there because this is not a registration procedure and the identity management that is done by EasyGov itself, it's a service that is a standard service for the entire government and that's also something very important for an immediate question that basically all governments have to address or have to find solutions to it.

Sometimes they have core services or an agency that is responsible for delivering digital services inside the government and so they have elaborated standard services that can be used and sometimes also should be used by other government agencies. And then the major question is do you use these type of inside government standards for external services with companies?

And it has advantages and disadvantages. If you don't do it then you're basically in a standalone service that is not connected to the rest of the government. If you do it, then you are connected to the rest of the government but you might not have the flexibility and agility to change everything very quickly about these kind of services. So for this year we decided to go with the government standard service which makes it a little bit less flexible for us to to make changes but changes are done and are possible as we will see in the next in the next one. But it's a base, it's a strategic decision that may also come up with other questions. You know for instance, where do you store the data?

Is it inside the government or do you have it with private contractors outside? There also we decided to do the inside government approach to have, to give the maximum security to companies that their data is safely stored and we take the full responsibility.

Gavin: Okay, so how many agencies within the Swiss, I'll say the federal government, the Confederation, how many agencies or departments at the moment are delivering those services on EasyGov and how did you bring them on board as part of that journey and moving away from a siloed view of the way they deliver their services to business?

Martin: At the moment it's only a small number of about three or four agencies that are involved and then there are also certain institutions like kind of parastatal institutions that are involved like the compulsory accident insurance which is something special in Switzerland that there is like a government set up a structure for this. So this, and how did we get that?

And sorry one point: the commercial registery is an interesting case because in Switzerland although it's a national law on commercial registry, the real commercial registry work and also data curating and everything is done by the cantonal offices, by the state offices. And so if you want to make a change in the commercial registry you have to go to your cantonal office.

And what we do is we, you can make the change on EasyGov, on the platform and we deliver it to each cantonal office. And that's already, that shows already you know, that such a platform can work through different government levels and we will add more on that type.

So how did we do that? Well it's very on the one hand we had certain experience from the predecessor platform which was called StartBiz. It was a smaller platform where only setting up the company was possible nothing else. And through that we gained a lot of experience in this area so we could, we could build on this knowledge and experience from StartBiz.

However in addition then we worked with the agencies and those who were most interested, and most interested in moving forward with those we added additional services.

Gavin: Got it. And so at the cantonal level, what's been that, how have they felt around having this available as a national service that cuts across all those levels of government?

Martin: Yeah that's a good question, it's very diverse. The large majority of the cantons do not have such type of platforms at all and if you have something but those who have something cannot at the moment add federal procedures. So these platforms have a usually a limited range very often a silo range which means you might have a platform only for taxes things or a platform only for something else but not a cross-cutting platform.

And then so this, it's a heterogeneous landscape and so the large majority welcomes it and we also discussed that of course with the states and cantons, we are not in a central state here in Switzerland so we are in a continuous exchange with the representatives of these cantons and their representatives were also part of the EasyGov team, the steering board that oversaw the construction and and building and designing of the platform which is very important so they we had regular meetings with them so that they could see what are we doing and how should it be done and so on and so forth.

And so this is something that is now evolving over time where those who don't have anything they say, "Okay now we have this platform when it, once we have our procedures in a way that we can offer it in a digital way," - which is very important because EasyGov is only the front end and I will come back to that afterwards, it's extremely important the architecture of the each agency's IT, we're offering the front end - "So let's connect to that front end and we don't need to offer any type of front end anymore. We just look after our databases, machines and interfaces but nothing about front ends."

And then others, the small number that have something, they are now like re-evaluating and then also seeing what makes sense to do, what is not, what should we continue, that's probably a phase that we believe will take a couple of years until things are all clarified.

Gavin: Okay, and so those IT challenges then across all those different levels of agencies and levels of government with the cantons and the municipalities, that's got to be a real set of internal challenges within the way that you manage the delivery of the program. What's been the main concern for you and how have you addresses those problems?

Martin: Yeah, absolutely true. I mean this is especially now where we have set up the platform as such and we can focus on the procedures on adding new additional procedures, this "stakeholder management", let's put it under this title, is the major thing. I mean it's not about IT, it's not about software or technical stuff or whatever. It's not about that.

It's about stakeholder management and it's very intensive in terms of direct work with the people. We need to get people around the table and discuss with them and talk with them.

This is, sometimes contradictory, you know people think, "Oh it's digital government so everything is digital."

No. The basis of the digital government are people around the table who have the same vision who share the vision and then agree to go in one direction but only I can say only, already the very first step requires a mental shift with all government agencies. Because everyone thought or thinks in the beginning "Oh if I do digital government service that means I set up a platform for my own agency for those procedures that are related to my platform, to my agency because of course I have the database I have, I run the software so automatically the front end should also be from the agency."

And then we come in and discuss with them and say, "No, it's good that you have your database and that you have your software and so on, but front-end is not anything that is helpful if you do it. Please don't do that or please do not think of setting up anything like that."

And that's a mental shift because first one needs to understand well where is the advantage to that, you know? Why should we do that?

And then and then we have the first principle of EasyGov is customer centricity. The customer is number one. We don't do this for government agencies, we don't do it for us, we don't do it for the public, we do it for the companies - the user. That's number one. So whatever is good for the user, let's do it. And then already is sometimes a little bit different perspective then an agency might have.

And then there is a second principle and advantaged of course that the agencies can see and also cantons can see "Oh, this platform delivers us benefits that would be very difficult for us to do or is costly." So if we have several platforms we are running a among agencies we can basically stop and reduce these costs. That's number one.

But then also there's number two, is like a very good platform needs work, it needs a lot of iterative step to make it always better to address the changes to stay state-of-the-art and integrate customer feedback directly into the new release for the next time and stuff like that.

And we do this for all of them and we, when we reserve, when we add a feature or function, we call it like there's a feature and function element, so let's say we would add a payment element or we resolve what I explained before, the procedure for onboarding a company and make sure that the person is acting for the company. This is a service that every agency can benefit of.

Otherwise they would have to do it themselves but it's very costly so it doesn't make sense. So then they can see, okay there is also something in it for us and that's usually a very intensive discussion that has to be done in depth before we can start about any type of technicality.

Gavin: It makes perfect sense. To be able to get to that point though and obviously have something that's compelling for those agencies and cantons to participate because you are providing them with this platform, you are providing them with these business processes and benefits, that obviously requires a bit of investment to get EasyGov up and running.

How did you approach and sell that concept of a service being provided across Switzerland within obviously and normally the way governments would tend to work is very much in budgetary silos. How did you address that problem?

Martin: Yeah we got, we have of course a budget for this and the budget is provided by the parliamentary decision on, in the framework of investment attractiveness of Switzerland. And that's you know, to make the location attractive.

And within that framework, you know, then the money was was not allocated to a specific agency for their own needs or for their own procedures. But it was allocated on the basis that would go for, would be provided to the whole country and in that way we secured the financial part but also saying this is not particularly an expensive thing in terms of money this platform. This is not something that is one of a major expenditure at all.

This is very interesting: what is much more important is the is the personnel side and all these discussions, interagency and cantonal discussions, that's something that we,that we did, we started many years ago.

And then based on that the cantons and the other agencies came to the conclusion, "Yes let's do that," although that was a decision in principle and then it has the believed and implemented every day and it will take us still many years to really get closer to the vision that we have.

Gavin: Understand. So all those benefits that are being generated both within government and within the agency and obviously the businesses themselves with being able to, having this customer focus rather than having to run around from you know, one cantonal office to now, you know, an actual agency office and then of course that benefit of positioning Switzerland as a very attractive investment location to relocate business.

How have you captured, or how have you captured the performance measures, the baseline measures, so you can kind of assess that in the future?

Martin: Yeah, we have of course inside, we have the opportunity to track and measure basically everything that is going on the platform to measure it in terms of how of course how many companies are registered, how many people are registered, we can see what kind of, how many transactions are done, the number of the transactions what type of transactions and all this kind of data is very large.

At the moment we do not particularly have specific goals, you know, that in terms of quantity that we want to achieve because in the first six months it's important that the platform runs stable and well functioning and that we add value by adding new services over time.

But of course the ultimate orientation is that we want, that at the end of, I mean when we get close to realize the division that basically a large part of Swiss companies are registered on the  platform. That's really the main thing.

Once we know and it's clear that when a company says, "Okay I need to do something with a government agency," then it needs to say, "Ah, EasyGov account. Ok I go there, I log in, I look where is this procedure. Okay let's do it." Once we are there, then we have done a big part of our job.

Gavin: So in that environment where you're looking for businesses to opt into that arrangement how are you promoting and getting the message out about EasyGov within the business community?

Martin: Yeah we run a campaign for, to inform people because as you say one thing is to have a very nice platform but if nobody knows about it, it doesn't help. So we do need to do marketing communication.

What is very important is digital information so if you Google it, that you find this platform and of course not because you know the name of it. But by what you want to do, what kind of procedure you want to do, and then the platform will come up. So that's a very important part because in these early stages where we are currently in we are targeting those businesses that have a certain affinity to IT procedures.

There are also other companies, small businesses also that might not necessarily work strongly on the digital side. And as much as they are welcome, but today in the situation we are today, we are targeting those who, who have a certain IT orientation. And then over time we will enlarge that set. But we we run a campaign online and offline to inform about EasyGov.

Gavin: Excellent. Martin one thing I'm very, very conscious of is the time and you've been very generous with your time and I've still got so many more questions I'd love to be able to ask you, but I won't today so that's not a problem. But I was interested I suppose, a closing what were the practical things that you learnt as an actual leader within government around how to actually deliver such a unique and a well performing digital service for business?

Martin: Yeah it let me say a few things. First, really customer centricit. So what we did was not only to share and discuss the conceptual idea of the platform with the business community.

But then once we have created the platform we got into a usability laboratory with a university and we recruited actual business owners, real business owners who, and also some lawyers and others, who would use, who are our customers in the future.

And we had them directly sitting there and go through these procedures and we would track and record every single detail whatever they did and what they did not understand and what their comments were and everything.

And this is something we're not going to do only now and when we set it up, we will do in the future annually. We do this every year. By the way, we have another platform the information platform which is called SME Portal - small and medium-sized enterprise portal or platform, where it's only about information. And on that platform we do this about five years - six years that we have a customer focus group check every year, standardized. And then only with that procedure I can be sure that this platform meets the requirements and demands of the customers.

Otherwise it's kind of a toy, a government agency toy.

But with this, it's really crucial that we can do it. So total customer focus.

And then the other thing of course is that what we talked about before: how important this interagency or interstate discussion is that internally it needs a lot of explaining and elaboration of this type of approach. Why we're doing it, where are the benefits, that they don't lose control.

It's very important you know, we don't take the control away from any agency. If that would happen of course they wouldn't participate so it needs trust building and trust is built not between machines but between the people.

Gavin: Wonderfully said. Martin, thank you so much for your time today I've learned a lot and I hope our listeners have too. Thank you for joining us.

Martin: Thank you Gavin. Thank you very much.

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