Project “Integrators”

How a handful of people are driving integration in communities

“If you want to make a difference, don't work in public administration,” IT project manager Dustin Savarino was told. He did it anyway – and breathed new life into a totally overburdened migration office. A report on an extraordinary collaboration.

Eva Wolfangel
Samuel Mindermann
May 13, 2024

A job for just six months? “That gave me security,” says Dustin Savarino – realizing in the same moment how strange that must sound. But people of the “Integrators” program are special, as the young IT project manager’s answer shows. Savarino switched from the private sector to a public administration six months ago. Today, he is attending the closing event of the program “Integrators” (Integrationsmacher:innen) in Stuttgart, exchanging ideas and experiences with like-minded people. The program is carried out by Lokalprojekte gGmbH, which is funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.


The Integrators

The program is giving five German municipalities the chance to implement digitally and socially innovative integration projects. We provide them with trained people from business and civil society to work on solutions...

The project came at just the right time for Savarino, he says during a coffee break. Now in his mid-20s, Savarino had worked as a manager for IT projects at a medium-sized company for several years after his studies. The job was okay, as was the pay. But something was missing. Savarino had the feeling he wanted to do something meaningful for society. “It was an intensive examination of myself,” he says, “I wanted to take on social responsibility.”

The public sector is slow and hostile to innovation? The Integrators paint a different picture

When Savarino discovered the Lokalprojekte program, it was still in its infancy.  He saw that the city of Pforzheim was involved, seeking someone to organize processes in the office for public order – especially in the migration bureau. Employees there were overburdened by the many demands of a city with the fourth largest share of migrants in Germany. “That could be interesting,” Savarino thought at first, only to be discouraged by an acquaintance, who told him: “If you want to make a difference, don't work in public administration.” But Savarino went for it anyway. “It sounded good,” he says.  After all, he could quit after six months if it didn’t pan out as expected.

Photo of Dustin Savarino
Three participants from the "Integrators" program stand in a circle and talk

Dustin Savarino and more participants of the “Integrators” program. They had six months to complete their projects

Public agencies have a reputation for being slow, cumbersome and hostile to innovation. Especially digitalization. But at the Stuttgart event, where participants in the Integrators project have come to report on their experiences, it is clear this is not the case. One thing in particular stands out: Participating agencies are trying to manage growing challenges in a variety of ways with limited resources – and all five are open to digital innovations. Whether an app that provides information to new arrivals in Kalletal, a network for anyone dealing with refugees in the Burgenland district, or optimizing administrative processes in Pforzheim, impressive changes have been achieved in just six months. In fact, there has been surprisingly little resistance in the supposedly outdated official structures.

Dustin Savarino didn't waste time lecturing his new colleagues on terms like “onboarding” or “process mapping.” Instead, he sat down with them and asked them to explain how they work.

Of course, this is also a very special clientele: “Interested authorities had to apply with a specific challenge and a sponsor from their own ranks,” explains Romy Marquart from Lokalprojekte. As a result, they brought a great deal of self-motivation to the project – and also a certain amount of pressure from the hardships they  face, as they make clear at the meeting in Stuttgart. The migration bureau was completely overloaded, reports Jürgen Beck, head of the Pforzheim office for public order, for example. “We also experienced extreme turnover,” he says. In one year, around half of the employees left. “A lot of knowledge was lost as a result.” Often, it was not entirely clear who was responsible for what and how processes worked. That's why Beck looked for help and found Lokalprojekte. “That was exactly the right thing,” he says.

Savarino nods in agreement – even if he was initially surprised when he joined the authority: “There was no structured onboarding for new employees.” Unclear processes, different standards and thousands of unread emails in one employee's inbox alone, with more piling up every day. But he didn't waste time lecturing his new colleagues on terms like “onboarding” or “process mapping.” Instead, he sat down with them and asked them to explain how they work.

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Together, they restructured their workflows, defined standardized processes and created a knowledge base as a foundation for future employees. “People took time they didn’t really have,” says Savarino today – because they understood that the changes would save time and pool resources in the long term – allowing them to get back to their actual jobs.

Fear of hostility, helping refugees in secret – a network has made the difference

“A public immigration agency opens up opportunities or shuts them down,” says Anna Lena Hemmer, who stands listening at a high table next to Savarino during the lunch break. She is an integration coordinator in the Burgenland district in Saxony-Anhalt. “At our agency, we experience the fears and hopes that people bring to us on a daily basis. That's why it's so important that employees know exactly where to find relevant information to help people in the best possible way,” she says.

Photo of Naemi Pfendt
Naemi Pfendt and Anna Lena Hemmer from the "Integrators" program stand in front of a screen and report on their results

Naemi Pfendt (left) came straight from her studies in innovation and change management to work in the administration of the Burgenland district - her partner there: Integration Coordinator Anna Lena Hemmer (second picture on the right)

Hemmer is a mentor on the administrative side of the Integrators project in the Burgenland district. Her Integrator, Naemi Pfendt, came straight from studying innovation and change management. Pfendt and  Susi Neupert, also an integration coordinator, have developed a community platform, a kind of closed Facebook for everyone in the Burgenland district who is  involved with migrant issues. Integration in rural areas of eastern Germany has been particularly difficult, says Hemmer: “Many in the integration sector have the feeling they are alone in the field.” They hide their commitment because they often experience rejection from friends and relatives.

The network creates a sense of community and ensures that the minimal resources reach the right places. The public agency also benefits from the structure of the Integrators project: As the Integrators are officially only “on loan” – in the form of temporary employment through “Lokalprojekte” – the employment hurdle is much lower. “We didn't have to worry about job classification or involving internal committees, which simplified everything,” says Anna Lena Hemmer. The project thus avoids complicated bureaucracy.

What the "Integrators" have achieved

In the video by our partner Lokalprojekte, "Integrators" from the participating municipalities - from the city of Stalsund, the municipality of Kalletal, the Burgenland district, the city of Torgau and the city of Pforzheim - report on their experiences.

Today, the network for those involved in integration has 80 active users.“We would never have expected that,” says Pfendt. Now, even those who were reluctant in the past are joining in. “They're starting to be afraid of missing out,” says Hemmer with a laugh. The success proves Pfendt and Hemmer right: Now that everyone is in direct contact with each other, many small problems can be solved quickly. For example, Hemmer reports that once, a group of newly arrived children needed to be vaccinated before they could attend school. But the local pediatricians had no capacity. Hemmer immediately posted a request for help on the platform, a doctor was found, and the children were vaccinated the very next day. People help each other out. “The district administrator can be reached via text message on the platform,” says Hemmer. “Our greatest learning is that networking can move mountains.”