How to kill a great organisation?:

The modern city administration as a conglomerate?

A modern city combines administration, service, innovation, further development and crisis management.

In this episode of our podcast series „How to kill a great organization,“ Michael Paula spoke with Mag. Ulrike Huemer, Magistrate of the City of Linz. Huemer studied law and her career led her via the Austrian Association of Cities, the financial administration of the Vienna Municipality to the head of Vienna’s accounting and tax department. In this position, she carried out her first organizational development projects and gained valuable experience, in particular how important it is to involve employees in changes.

Huemer then spent 5 years as CIO (Chief Information Officer) of the City of Vienna, working intensively on the digitization of the city administration and was able to effectively contribute her experience with organizational development and process management. In 2020, she moved to the City of Linz as Magistrate Director.

Huemer talks about her tasks and experiences in Linz, about crisis management in times of pandemic and about her focus on developing a corporate strategy, on digitization and managing a major transformation process in the magistrate’s office.

Smart City – added value only through concrete benefits

With regard to the topic of digitization, Huemer also revisits the Smart City Wien project, which occupied her for several years during her time as CIO. The topic was strongly driven by technology companies and Huemer linked it to sustainability and innovation. Essentially, it was about

„finding use cases that are good and subsequently communicating to the respective department what opportunities are associated with them. What added value can this create? Because at the end of the day, technologies always have to create value in order to be accepted. And so I’ve actually always tried to translate the language of technicians into the language of specialist departments .“

Huemer goes on to discuss the challenges at the city of Linz and how it is meeting them. In addition to the topic of climate change, these are the digitalization of the administration and the topic of „employees“, i.e. personnel development and personnel management. The latter is mainly about the upcoming generation change, recruiting, management development and talent management.

The city administration as a large corporation – employees in focus

„A city administration is de facto actually a large conglomerate and now the Vienna Magistrate, from my point of view, is probably the largest conglomerate in all of Austria. And Linz is not a large corporation, but with 4,000 employees it is actually a large corporation by Austrian standards, and that’s how I view it. And in the entire management process, I try to bring together four strands of action, i.e. sovereign administration, service, innovation & further development and crisis management, and to bring the appropriate methodological competence to bear in the respective strands of action. In doing so, I always point out that the sovereign area can also be innovative and modernization can also be driven forward through digitization; I just have to work differently in terms of methodology in some cases. And the second thing is that you need good employees, you need top managers, and that’s why the focus is very much on female employees. So from onboarding to leaving, from the recruiting process already starting in management training, in talent management, in knowledge management.“

From a „civil servant’s pickle“ to a project-oriented roadmap

The corporate strategy, which Huemer briefly outlines, consists of 8 fields of action that include employee orientation, organizational issues, climate issues and corporate cultural issues. This was cast into a roadmap in which targeted projects for the next few years were defined:

„With this roadmap, we want to create clarity and orientation for the employees. It was enormously important to me not to write a corporate strategy with a lot of nice words, but one where you simply notice that when we talk about employee orientation, for example, what we then do in concrete terms.“

Creativity and humor are indispensable elements of Huemer’s work:

„For example, we have now presented our corporate strategy in the form of a comic strip as a creative approach. And every employee gets a little comic like this, where the 8 fields of action and their guiding principles have been prepared in the context of the comic. This makes it a bit playful and low-threshold.  And in our corporate culture, for example, we have given ourselves humor as a value, which some people found extremely courageous. . But it’s very, very important to me because I try to always put the touch of humor in even the most difficult situations.“

Rumors, myths, morays – how to counter floor rumor

In terms of successful transformation and change, Huemer names the following ingredients: a clear picture of why you are doing this transformation, why change is needed; transparent communication about the why and the how of the transformation; self-reflection as a leader in order to be able to fulfill your own role model. And lastly, the targeted handling of „rumors, myths and mores“ to prevent interpretations in the hallway and in the coffee kitchen.

The full length interview:

This text was translated by a machine and clearly shows that we still have a long way to go before we are in danger of being rendered obsolete by A.I..

Michael Paula: Welcome to the new episode of our podcast series „How to Kill a Great Organization“. Our Metashift Transformations Podcast looks at what long-term success of organisations and companies means. We talk to experienced leaders, to experts, about what they think is particularly important in this context. We are concerned with sustainable corporate success and what ingredients are necessary to achieve it. My name is Michael Paula and I welcome our guest today, Magistra Ulrike Huemer, Magistrate of the City of Linz. Before that, and during this time we got to know each other, CIO, Chief Information Officer of the City of Vienna. Welcome, Ms Huemer. And thank you very much for agreeing to do this.

Ulrike Huemer: Thank you very much for the invitation.

Michael Paula: Perhaps we can start by you telling us a little about yourself. About your career.

Ulrike Huemer: With pleasure. I am an Upper Austrian, I grew up in the deepest part of the Mühlviertel. I think that’s always very important to understand some things, and I benefited very, very much from the Kreisky era, when there was finally a grammar school in the Mühlviertel. And so the child of the worker was allowed to take the Matura, so to speak. And then I studied law, but I confess that I actually wanted to study medicine, but I didn’t want to or couldn’t do it to my parents that I would have gone either to Vienna or to Innsbruck, because that simply wouldn’t have been possible financially. And that’s why I studied law, which was a good and important decision for me at the end of the day. From the very beginning I had a great fascination for legal topics, but especially for public law, constitutional law and administrative law. And then I was an assistant during my studies and became an assistant at the Institute for Constitutional Law and Political Science with Professor Hengstschläger. And then I went to Carinthia for private reasons and I always say that the private reasons in Carinthia then stopped again. And exactly at that moment I received a very exciting offer from the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns in Vienna, because the Austria Convention had met there in 2003, 2002, 2003, and it was about fundamentally changing the Austrian Federal Constitution. And I had the great opportunity to work there for the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns in these political bodies, to prepare documents, to prepare the conduct of negotiations.

And, of course, it was one of the most formative tasks of my entire career, because at 26 I felt and experienced pretty much all the constitutional lawyers of this country very closely and already realised how difficult it is to bring about change. And at the end of the day, the Austrian Convention produced several hundred pages. I think there were thousands of pages and many committee reports, and at the end of the day, unfortunately, no fundamental reform was achieved. For me it was very, very instructive. For Austria, a major reform would probably have been desirable. On the other hand, the last few years have shown us that our constitution is very stable and that we can rely on it. But of course, there is a certain need for reform. And after this time with the Association of Cities and Towns, I then moved to the Viennese financial administration, to the finance department of the Vienna City Council, where I was responsible for financial equalisation, for budget issues, for financing issues, for health care, local public transport, and I simply learned a lot about finances, budgets and, of course, ultimately also control, but also at a very, very young age, and I was very closely connected professionally with the then Finance Director, in which I was a very close colleague of his. And I think he made a very, very wise decision by saying that it is simply not good to work in such an ivory tower or so to speak in the top management department at such a young age and that it is simply much, much more important to see the basis again.

And then at the age of 32, very young, I became head of the Vienna Accounting and Tax Department. This was a department with 1000 employees. First of all, I had to deal intensively with accounting issues, and that’s where the intersections with IT were. At that time, we were implementing a large SAP system in Vienna, and that was just the last stage of this really challenging project. And also my first organisational development projects, because I merged a part of another municipal department into this existing department. And those were the first things – how does organisational development work? How do you have to involve your staff in order for it to work? And after this time, that was another five years. So it was always five-year cycles, five six-year cycles. Then I applied for the role of CIO, which was an extraordinary application, because suddenly a female lawyer applied for this job and not the male computer scientist or the male physicist or technician. And at the end of the day, it was simply the decision of the Viennese top management, the magistrate, that they said that if you think of digitisation, then it is simply not a topic of IT, but a topic of organisational development, of process management.

And the technologies don’t have to or shouldn’t be in the foreground. And that was also the reason, based on my experience, that I was familiar with IT projects and did some work, but I was very good at organisational development. I then became CIO and spent six years – not quite six years, but five years – working intensively on the digitalisation of the Vienna City Administration, and in 2020 the role of Magistrate Director in Linz was advertised. And for me it was simply another decisive step to say that I would actually like to be at the very forefront of a company and to be able to shape it with my ideas of a public administration, of a modern public administration. This opportunity arose in Linz and I applied, won the hearing and have been the municipal director of Linz since June 2020. I started there in the middle of the pandemic. So I’ve actually been busy for almost two years with very intensive crisis management, but at the same time we’ve developed a digitalisation strategy, a corporate strategy and are in a huge transformation and change process. And I have not regretted it for a second. I love Magistrat Linz. I like my management team, my employees and I really enjoy going to Linz City Hall extremely much every day.

Michael Paula: That’s nice to hear. I wrote down the question that you already answered, namely the question How does a lawyer come to the topic of digitalisation? But you have answered it. It’s not so much about the technology, it’s about the process. It’s about preparing the organisation accordingly, transforming it accordingly, in order to bring that across. Because we also see this in many companies. Or we see in many companies that at the beginning the technology is perhaps in the foreground. But at some point you realise that it’s about the people, it’s about the organisation. May I briefly return to the topic? I can remember that it was certainly more of a buzzword at times. But the topic of Smart City was so much in the foreground. When you look back on that time. Where would you say the biggest challenges were? Bringing forward the topic of digitalisation in connection with the development of the organisation, especially in a public administration, because you also said that it is often difficult, especially in a public administration, to really implement changes in this way.

Ulrike Huemer: Well, if I can perhaps interject here, I believe that change is not only incredibly difficult in public administration. I think it’s the same in every company, unless it’s a start-up, but I think even female employees of a start-up find it difficult when they have got used to some things. So I just think that people don’t really like to change very much unless there is somehow a very essential pain point. At the end of the day, pain leads to change. And I think that’s why it’s not just public administration. Back to the issue of the smart city. Well, I think in connection with Smart City at that time – I actually use the term Smart City less in Linz, because I simply believe that it is per se a very, very difficult term. What is a smart city? And as a city you need a relatively long way to go to define it again. The second is, of course, the issue of defining what a smart city stands for in management. Then you have to bring the topic to the employees. And that, I think, has been the biggest challenge. So to turn a city administration in this direction, so to speak, and to say Okay, our top priority vision is that Vienna is a Smart City and that ultimately every municipal department can make its contribution.

Be it by simply digitalising processes, but of course also extremely the topic of sustainability, innovation, in Vienna sustainability, technologisation, innovation have been brought together in a triangle with the very clear goal of reducing CO2. And I have already mentioned this myself, or you have already hinted at it in your question. Firstly, in 2015 and 2014, smart city topics were still extremely driven by technology companies. That is to say, in my first time, pretty much all the large IT companies came to me and presented me with the most amazing use cases, from the smart rubbish bins that scream out that they want to be emptied. About the traffic lights that change when you go there. Of the lighting that switches on or off when you walk past. So of course that was very technology-driven and at the end of the day it’s a question of how do I explain now, for example, to the head of 48 in Vienna, who, who knows him, is a very self-confident and a great leader, would like to say that now the rubbish bins, so to speak, decide on his routing, but from his point of view and I believe that too, and that’s why it has never been introduced and is also introduced in hardly any cities.

They do think about how they drive in the morning. And anyone who has experienced this in Vienna knows that, first of all, they really try not to hold up the traffic. So there is a lot of thought in there. And how do I teach them or try to motivate them to at least make a pilot, to at least try something? And that was always a tension, of course, and that’s the point – for me it was actually very, very clear after a conversation with him that this is actually not a use case for Vienna and to sort out which use cases can make a contribution, which are perhaps exciting in another city, but not in ours. And then also to relieve some of this pressure from IT companies. They simply say that you could never become a smart city if you don’t have these and those use cases. So those have been the really big challenges, to find use cases that are good and then also to communicate them to the respective department and to convey to them what opportunities are associated with them. What added value can this create? Because at the end of the day you always have to convince someone of a benefit.

That was perhaps the advantage of not being a technician, because in the discussions I had with the technicians, I always had to translate that myself. And so I always tried to translate the language of the technicians into the language of the technical departments. And some things we succeeded in doing and some things we didn’t succeed in doing. So that was also essential and I think there were many great digitisation initiatives. We then had the Urban Lakeside, which I think was a big flagship in Vienna, but of course then also a lot of things that now – that didn’t have the municipal authorities too much at the core – but everything that Wiener Linien do. Then, of course, extremely great contributions for a Smart City Wien. So that’s what I think I would sum up as the greatest challenges. That is also easy to translate. What does Smart City stand for, and as we got to know each other, that was also an essential topic in this workshop: which tasks do we actually define now?

Michael Paula: Yes, thank you very much. The topic of digitalisation in particular was already a topic in many companies years ago and continues to accompany them now. I would like to go into what you said first, namely also as a reason why you were attracted to apply for the position of Magistrate in Linz. Namely really from the top. And I think you called it shaping a modern, public, administration, a modern city. You then also said that you are in a process of transformation. Then I would like to ask you to explain a little bit what the main goals are for you when it comes to modern public administration and what the key points are from your point of view in this transformation process.

Ulrike Huemer: Well, we have it in Linz, but I think it is the same in all administrations, but in Linz we basically have 2 to 3 challenges. In addition to climate change and all these issues, we have two major challenges and that is the issue that the demands of the population, and we have been observing this for many years now, and of the economy have simply changed significantly in relation to a city administration. And of course this has also triggered digitalisation, in which the citizen simply doesn’t understand why he has 7 times 24 online in his private consumer behaviour and in some cases can’t make appointments in a city administration, has to come in person, has to hand things in on paper. And so on and so forth. In other words, these requirements have simply changed. And I believe that it is simply extremely important to meet these requirements. That is one thing. The second is the fundamental issue that digitalisation offers potential for becoming more efficient. And from my point of view, every city administration must strive to become more efficient, because the budget will not increase in any of these cities, but you simply have to look at the resources, apart from the fact that it is taxpayers‘ money, and therefore efficiency is a very important issue. And the third issue is, it is simply also the case that existing employees, but also future employees, have different demands on an employer. And if we want to have employees in the future, and we have a big generation change ahead of us, then we also have to change.

That means we have to position ourselves to get employees in the future. These three aspects are incredibly relevant. Why? I believe that we have to change extremely in Linz. Another aspect for me is that I simply don’t think much of the fact that we constantly differentiate between the private sector and public administration, as if public administration were so much more specific. Of course we have sovereign acts to perform and I always say very simply, but I can also serve someone a parking ticket, but I can make it easier for them to pay or just with QR codes or whatever. Or I can also write someone a penal notice in such a way that they can even understand why they have just been penalised now. In other words, of course we have this special feature of sovereign administration, but we don’t just have administration. Here we have urban development, which is about innovation, urban design, open space design, greening measures. It is simply a matter of very clear project management. But it is also about creativity, about innovation. We have many service areas when it comes to kindergarten places, when it comes to subsidies, when it comes to cultural offerings. And of course there is also crisis management, which has characterised us for two years now, and which again functions according to completely different rules. And I already said it in Vienna, but it also applies to Linz.

A city administration is de facto actually a huge conglomerate and now Vienna, the magistrate, is from my point of view probably the biggest conglomerate in the whole of Austria. And Linz is not a big concern, but with 4,000 employees it is actually a large company by Austrian standards, and that’s how I see it. And I try to bring these four strands of action, i.e. administration, service, innovation, further development and crisis management, into connection with each other and to bring the corresponding methodological competence into the respective strands of action, but also to point out again and again that I can also be innovative in the area of sovereignty, that I can also promote modernisation, that digitalisation has just as much a place there. I just have to work methodically differently in some cases. When I do participatory processes, I can of course say, „Yes, if we make mistakes, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t work so well in sovereign administration. So it’s not really advisable. Actually, my big approach is to connect these two things. And the second thing is that it takes good employees, it takes top managers, and that’s why there’s such a big focus on female employees. So from onboarding to leaving, from the recruiting process starting with management training, in talent management, in knowledge management, in other words, all these topics.

And at the end of the day we simply thought about how to approach the issue. We developed a corporate strategy last year. We deliberately called it corporate strategy. We always said administrative strategy or whatever, and we said it’s a corporate strategy. There are people who say yes, a city administration is not a company. And of course there are also many who say that it’s great that it’s seen as a company. And those who don’t see it that way are always told that we do a lot for the people of Linz. And for this enterprise we need a strategy and so somehow it works. But in any case, we now have this corporate strategy, which has eight fields of action and in these eight fields of action, which are employee orientation, organisational issues, climate issues, corporate culture issues, we have then developed a roadmap, where there are really very specific projects for the next few years, where everyone knows when which project is due, what do we do in each year? And with this roadmap we want to create clarity for the staff, orientation for the staff and simply a clear direction. And what was so important to me was that I didn’t want to write a corporate strategy with a lot of fine words, but where everyone simply notices that when we talk about employee orientation, what are we doing concretely? That means we have set up an employer branding, we have changed our recruiting to online recruiting.

We are in the process of creating a new onboarding process, i.e. when I come to the Municipality of Linz, how will I be welcomed, what information will I receive, how will I be trained. In other words, there are very concrete measures. And of course there is a lot going on at the moment and there are employees who say that it is all too much and why and why. We are trying very hard to accompany this with communication. For example, we have just presented our corporate strategy in a comic strip as a creative approach. And every employee now gets a little comic where these fields of action and these guiding principles are presented in the form of a comic, so that it is also a bit playful. And we have, for example, given ourselves a value in our corporate culture: Humour, which some found extremely courageous. But that is very, very important to me, because I always try to bring a touch of humour into even the most difficult situations. Whereby, sometimes maybe a bit of sarcasm, but never mind. And that’s why the comic fits in quite well. And that it is always very coherent. And yes, and that’s what drives me at the moment.

Michael Paula: To go into the last one briefly, the subject of humour. It may be brave, but my very personal opinion and experience is that it can be extremely helpful in ultimately changing the energy. It can be in a meeting. And suddenly, when something falters, to get things going again. So it’s very important. And because you said a conglomerate. To also see the public administration as a company. What they do and how they do it, we hear almost one to one also from industrial companies, from service companies. There is no other view at all. I can remember how we had our first contact with the municipal administration in Vienna. I was really surprised at what was behind all this. Because as a citizen you tend to imagine dusty offices and sleeve pads and ink pads. And then to see what’s behind it all.

It’s important that the newspaper usually says what doesn’t work.

And that is also problematic for the image. But it’s also not good for the staff. It’s hard to motivate yourself when you’re only in the newspaper when you’ve done something wrong. But maybe, where nothing ever happened for 20 years. And then someone makes a mistake and you’re in the papers, maybe for days, and that’s naturally unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean that I want to relativise these mistakes. Of course, one should not make mistakes on some issues, especially in the administration of sovereignty. I do not deny that there are still people in the public administration, also in Linz, who fulfil the cliché. Yesterday I had a group of executives from a bank visit us. I told them that the myth of the civil servant’s Mikado or the negative conflict of competences is not something that I would completely dispel. So I, too, am struggling with it. I just say to them today, please stop with the civil servants‘ Mikado, and I believe that you simply have to address it. So some things are true, but I just think the image is worse than it is.

Michael Paula: I think so too, it’s also my experience in Vienna or also, we now have a small municipality, but the administration works well there too. It is often taken for granted. Yes, to slowly come to a rounding off, to a conclusion, because we ask all our podcast participants that. From your experience, when it comes to the topic of transformation, from your very concrete experience, what tips would you give to other managers. Regardless of whether it’s a public administration or a company. What would be the three most important things that you would like to pass on to others?

Ulrike Huemer: I think the most important thing is to have a clear picture of why you are doing this transformation process. In other words, why do we need this change? I think that is very, very important. The second point is to communicate clearly and, from my point of view, to invest a lot of time and resources in it. Last year I worked with 15 directors as a second level under me and then with more than 100 department heads, and I had discussions with all of them to explain why we are doing a corporate strategy, why we have these projects. Why do we have to change at all. What values do we adopt for the future. I think it is extremely important to spend a lot of time explaining and providing orientation. What we have also done is to create transparency about all the projects we have launched. That is, we have an intranet and there are the really important projects, we completely changed flexitime last year and there was a lot of fear and scepticism about it. And we have the entire project, every steering committee, every document has been published there. In other words, no one was worried that they had a hidden agenda anyway, but rather we communicated that what could be read there was the truth and we followed through with that, and to have that transparent, to explain it and ultimately, as a manager, I believe, to always have this goal in mind. But then also to make compromises, to go to the right, to go to the left, to simply give in on some things and say OK, is this really so important to me now, then I’ll make concessions or we’ll do another loop.

Well, I think that is important. But still, despite all the resistance, not to lose the goal, but to make concessions. And I think these are the factors. And in the end, I think what is extremely important as a leader is to always look at oneself. To look at this self-reflection. So when resistance comes, what does that have to do with me? Did I do something that simply made it unclear, that made it scary? And I think that is extremely important in order to be a role model. I think the most important thing, that is, what you have to do when you say I want to live change, is that sometimes as a leader or as a top leader you have to be the first to do some things. So that I was the first to introduce MS teams, that I was the first to actually only go around with my notebook, but also that I also do home office myself, or that I also go to the flexitime and clock in and things like that, those are often moments like that. At some point I saw a co-worker who said, „You do that too? Yes, of course. And these things are so important, to stick to one’s own rules. And that also leads to acceptance. And also when you make mistakes. Just say, okay, that was my fault, I did it wrong.

Michael Paula: Yes, because you said that the most important thing is to talk to the people, to talk to the managers, to talk to the staff. I think that is also part of this topic, being a role model. It is also important for us to explain clearly why we do something. Why do we do something, why do we exist and why do we do this transformation. And to create this transparency. So I personally think it’s very important. I have also experienced this in my time as an employee. Or simply saying when you don’t know something. That can help an employee.

Ulrike Huemer: But I think that especially in change processes, I always call them myths, rumours and morals, they can become toxic.

And there is so much interpretation in the hallway. That’s why there are always rumours, myths and Moravians in my large projects, almost as a work package. How do we deal with them?

Michael Paula: Very well. I’ll have to make a note of it. May I use it?

Ulrike Huemer: Any time.

Michael Paula: I just think it’s good. You’re right, it can be toxic. It can drain an extreme amount of energy.  Thank you again for your tips. In general, thank you very much for the conversation. It was really exciting. I was pleased that we met again after several years. At this point, thank you also to our listeners of the podcast for listening. And if you enjoyed the episode, we’d be very happy if you subscribe to us via a podcast app. But we would also appreciate a five-star rating or recommendation to someone in your circle who might be interested in this episode. This helps us to continue to attract exciting guests, to explore new topics around transformation and change for you. We look forward to having you back next time.