magazine_ Interview


"Our attitude toward the state is that of consumers"

Conversations between disciplines: interview with business economist Josef Bernhart and geographer Stefan Schneiderbauer.

by Barbara Baumgartner, Sigrid Hechensteiner

The public management expert Josef Bernhart reminds us that the state is all of us. And the bureaucracy we like to moan about also creates security and guarantees equal rules for society. How managing risks and the day-to-day existence of mountain regions in low-income countries can be threatened without functioning administration and controls is something that geographer Stefan Schneiderbauer sees time and again. The two researchers work under conceivably different conditions, but with the same goal: sustainable development.

Mr. Bernhart, your institute analyzes the government programs of South Tyrolean municipalities - is there a central theme there?

Josef Bernhart: Central themes for South Tyrolean municipal policy are work and the economy, social sustainability, mobility, the environment, and spatial planning. This shows that the political decision-makers do indeed think and act with sustainability in mind. Sustainability has at least three dimensions: social, economic, and ecological. We have worked out what this means in concrete terms in the case of the municipality of Naturns-Naturno. There, with broad citizen participation, a sustainability report and then a strategic development program called "Vision Naturns-Naturno 2030+," were created. In a dynamic process, the first fundamental question is what sustainable development meant for the community in all three dimensions; then suitable indicators or metrics were determined. Examples included housing and care services for seniors, employment data and energy consumption. In this way, development becomes visible beyond the snapshot, and it is possible to systematically check the extent to which the sustainability goals are being approached.

Mr. Schneiderbauer, your work supports sustainable development in mountain regions around the world, recently in Burundi, for example. What is the central issue there?

Stefan Schneiderbauer: Great pressure on natural resources - and food security as a result. In Burundi, the rural areas are extremely densely populated, and the fields are too small to produce enough food. There are no alternatives, however, and people are dependent on subsistence agriculture. During my last visit, I was struck by how differently the Corona pandemic is perceived there - when people struggle to get enough to eat every day, the threat of the virus is put into perspective.

What was the project about?

Schneiderbauer: Together with partners, we analyzed how vulnerable Burundi is to natural risks, especially in connection with climate change. Special attention was paid to the risk analysis of multiple or intensifying hazards - take, for example, a situation in which heavy rainfall triggers both flooding and landslides, and the landslides also block traffic routes. Vulnerability to such natural hazards has various dimensions. There is the physical one, houses collapse more quickly if they are not made earthquake-proof, for example. Another important factor is social vulnerability. It describes, among other things, the extent to which a society is prepared for hazards and can deal with them. Are there, for example, studied emergency plans or a functioning early warning system? Our team has analyzed this aspect, all that is collectively referred to as the "institutional setting". A lot depends on this. Without a functioning public administration, vulnerability increases enormously, because in the event of a disaster, there is no adequate assistance. In Burundi, for example, there is only a very weak public disaster management structure, and resultingly the trust of the population is very low. In an emergency, no one assumes that much support will come from the official side. People must therefore rely on other networks, such as the family.

Bernhart: In South Tyrol, it is often the other way around. People say, "The state or public sector has to do it for me. After all, I pay taxes." The attitude of consumers - also described by Richard David Precht in his book Von der Pflicht - is: "I pay taxes, and now you State, deliver." In the areas where you work Stefan, the State can't deliver. People know that. They know they have to help themselves since there are only very few institutional resources. But then maybe there is more social cohesion than there is here, at least locally, even if born out of necessity? Maybe we have forgotten that a little bit?

Schneiderbauer: I can understand your point of view, and when we discuss things with risk managers here in South Tyrol, we often hear complaints that personal responsibility is declining, and people are relying too much on the public sector. This observation is justified, of course, but I still think it's high level nagging. After all, the high level of trust in the public sector is based on the many positive experiences people have had with previous natural disasters. When it comes down to it, in South Tyrol, you can simply rely on the fact that procedures and technical equipment work and that those involved do everything they can to avert damage. And the idea of community is still very strong in South Tyrol, especially in the valleys and villages. In the countries and regions where we work, it is often quite different, for example due to large migration movements; there is often no longer a stable, functioning local community. And even if suitable laws do exist, such as regulations for earthquake-resistant construction, they often have no effect because no one monitors compliance. This is another example of how the weakness of the institutional setting increases the risk.

Bernhart: In our province, where the controls are carried out meticulously, people moan about the bureaucracy. We have completely lost sight of the fact that bureaucracy also guarantees security, a standard of comparability, and secure procedures. Bureaucracy has a negative connotation as a term, and the general attitude before the Corona pandemic was: "Keep the State off my back, if possible. Less government!” That's what many people wanted. During the pandemic, however, there was a sudden call from all sides for the State, for Corona aid, and the State was the savior. So, if the State were a person, it could rightly say: Before, you wanted to push me back, now I'm suddenly supposed to save you. But the State is all of us, in the end we all must generate the money that the State spends. But the Corona pandemic is also a good example of how excessive bureaucracy in administrative sense can be avoided by giving citizens more personal responsibility: I always cite the substitute declaration in Italian autocertificazione as an example, which allowed citizens to certify official facts themselves without having to go to public office. Italy has been a pioneer in this area, especially since the 1990s.

Is Italian administration better than its reputation?

Bernhart: The types of media that operate on the principle that bad news is good news paint a distorted picture when they report negatively across the board and only focus on individual cases. Surveys show time and again that people are generally satisfied with public administration, even if in Italy there is room for improvement compared with other European countries. It is also worth noting that for years Italy's administrations have been required to record the direct satisfaction of citizens - both when they visit an office in person and when they contact it by telephone or online. There is a high level of satisfaction, especially with processing when it occurs directly in administrative offices although people are dissatisfied if they have had to wait too long. There are many management reforms and innovative measures in Italy, such as the introduction of digital identity. Italy's public administration also ranks well internationally in terms of the online services available, especially for companies.

© Eurac Research | Tiberio Sorvillo

"It is also a mistake to think that digitization always means simplification."

Josef Bernhart

But will people keep up? In some European countries, older citizens are fighting back because they feel excluded by the increasing digitization of services.

Bernhart: In Italy, public administration is actually one of the areas where the willingness to digitize is relatively low compared to the rest of Europe. Most people still prefer direct contact. Of course, this is also a generational issue. My mother who’s over 80, would rather sign a printed form than do something online. It is also a mistake to think that digitization always means simplification. Everything does not automatically become simpler, nor does it immediately become cheaper, because the structures have to be set up first. Digitization requires technologies, and these cost money. In addition, the possibility of analog access must still be guaranteed, at least for certain target groups and for a certain time, so as not to exclude or disadvantage anyone. Public administration is based on the principle of equal treatment.

© Eurac Research | Tiberio Sorvillo

"Low-income countries can use digital technology to skip costly infrastructure development - such as the construction of a fixed telephone network, which is rendered superfluous by smartphones."

Stefan Schneiderbauer

Mr. Schneiderbauer, what role does digitization play in the development of the remote regions in which you work?

Schneiderbauer: Digital information and communication processes are of enormous importance, especially in the areas in which we mainly work: disaster management, climate risks, climate adaptation. Early warning systems, for example, are essential to avoid the most devastating consequences of natural events. Timely information about impending weather conditions can prevent crop failures. Enabling and expanding access to modern technologies is therefore an important aspect of cooperation with these countries. Digital technology also makes it possible to skip costly infrastructure development, such as the construction of a fixed telephone network, which is rendered superfluous by smartphones.

Are industrialized nations, as the instigators of climate change, doing enough to help low-income countries that have contributed little to global warming but are suffering from its consequences? The amount of financial aid has been hotly disputed at the last world climate conferences.

Schneiderbauer: Absolutely right, how much money should and must flow from the industrialized nations that have been causing climate change to the countries of the Global South in order to be able to mitigate the most severe effects of global warming is being hotly debated. In the Paris Climate Agreement, the industrialized countries committed themselves to providing USD 100 billion per year starting in 2020. That sounds like a considerable sum at first. However, a closer look reveals that a large part of this money is only being granted in the form of loans and, above all, that it takes far too long for this money to actually be made available to the affected areas in order to implement adaptation projects.

Do you see inspiration for your own work in each other's experiences?

Schneiderbauer: From this conversation alone, I have the impression that there are interesting points of contact. The systematic observation and evaluation of sustainability indicators for all three components, for example, which Josef described, we could certainly learn a thing or two from that.

Bernhart: What Stefan reported again impressively confirms to me that sustainability can only succeed globally, because ultimately, we are all part of one world. You have to act locally - but always think globally. For me, this is very clearly expressed in Stefan's projects.

Josef Bernhart

Josef Bernhart, business economist, holds a PhD in the quality management of public administrations from the University of Innsbruck and has been vice head of the Institute for Public Management since 2001. In his professional life, he is passionate about de-bureaucratization, in his voluntary work he is committed to the Christian social movement, and in his free time he enjoys cycling. Perseverance is required in all areas.

Stefan Schneiderbauer

Stefan Schneiderbauer is a geographer and has been involved in (climate) risk management in mountain regions for more than 20 years. At Eurac Research, he manages the GLOMOS program for the UN University, which supports the conservation and sustainable development of mountain areas worldwide. He enjoys being in nature, loves the mountains and swimming in ice-cold lakes.

Related People

Stefan Schneiderbauer

Josef Bernhart


Institutes & Centers

Related Content

Betting on cosmic rays

Betting on cosmic rays

Technologies to protect against drought are increasing

Design dares to ask dumb questions

Design dares to ask dumb questions

Valeria von MillerValeria von Miller

Related Research Projects

1 - 8

Der kleine Bezirk mit dem großen Herz für Menschen mit besonderen Bedürfnissen


Duration: -