Actually, the era of paperwork in the German state should end in 2023. But nothing will come of it. Digitization in offices and authorities continues to progress at a snail’s pace. Why does Germany keep failing in its digital goals?
Actually, December 31 of this year should have been a celebratory day. A day of awakening for the country and its citizens. But nothing will come of it. Instead, the year ends for German politics with a shameful finding. More than five years have passed since the then GroKo decreed that Germany should start into a new digital era.
The Online Access Act – in short: OZG – stipulated that by the end of 2022 all administrative services must be available digitally to citizens. End the paperwork. No more long waiting times in stuffy offices. In the future, changing your place of residence should be as easy as booking a flight. That was the plan.
One thing is certain today: Germany will miss this target – and by a wide margin. Of a total of 575 government services nationwide, just 33 have been digitized in five years. This is reported by the National Regulatory Control Council, an independent advisory body to the government. The responsible Federal Ministry of the Interior, unsurprisingly, calculates differently. There the figure is put at a little more than 100. We don’t really know for sure. And this circumstance also tells a lot about the state of the German state in 2022.
Unfortunately, this digital disaster is not at all surprising. For years, politicians have been promising to finally make the administration more modern and efficient. Changing governments have promised improvements, announced ambitious goals, made tens of billions available – and yet they have failed again and again. But why do “digital” and “Germany” go so badly together?
A week ago, the federal government met for the digital summit. Once again. The guest list read like a who’s who of German top politics. Also once again. The Chancellor was there, as were Robert Habeck, Volker Wissing and Nancy Faeser, who, as Minister of the Interior, is to a certain extent the face of the administration’s digital non-expansion.
Nice speeches were made. Digitization is right at the top of the agenda and is being pushed… The sentences seemed suspiciously familiar. But there hasn’t been a lack of announcements in the past. The problem is that nothing follows from it.
Every year, the EU Commission compares how well e-government works in the member states. In the current ranking, the Federal Republic is 18th out of 27. This means that people in the Czech Republic or Slovenia can also access state online services more reliably than in Germany, not to mention Estonia.
There, citizens log into a central Internet portal and have access to more than 600 services, from birth certificates to company registration. In the Baltic flagship country, all of this has long been happening online – without opening times and hanging folders.
In this country, on the other hand, the citizens are increasingly despairing of their state. When homeowners tried to send property tax data to the tax authorities in the summer – which he had actually known for a long time, but that’s another topic from the realm of German bureaucracy – when the citizens wanted to fulfill their duty, the servers of the tax platform crashed. Embarrassing, but symptomatic for a country in which it is sometimes considered an “online service” if you can send in a printed PDF.
It would be laughable if it were only about time and money. But it’s about more. For citizens’ trust in state institutions. About Germany as a business location. And it’s also about the question of whether a supposedly saturated industrial country can reinvent itself.
It would be easy to pin the German digital problem down to individuals. To ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, who in 2013 (!) still spoke of the Internet as “uncharted territory”. Or to CSU politician Dorothee Bär, who, as the government’s digital officer, produced kitschy Instagram photos as proof of work. But those who cling to banalities scratch the surface. In fact, the reasons for digital failure go deeper. If you want to understand them, you have to look at the structures in which state action is organized in this country.
One who knows these structures is Eileen O’Sullivan. The 26-year-old studied political science and trained as an office management clerk at Deutsche Bank before she stood for the small Volt party in the local elections in Frankfurt am Main in 2021 and was elected head of the department for digitization in the Hessian metropolis. Now she is sitting in an inconspicuous office building near the Römer and is trying to explain what is going wrong with the expansion of digital administration.
“The OZG was a good idea. But there was no roadmap for how it should be implemented,” she says. The federal government has underestimated that the transformation requires not only money, but above all local know-how. As it quickly turned out, the municipalities in particular were overwhelmed with the task. Example Frankfurt: In the city of 750,000 inhabitants, a total of 244 people work in the responsible department on the municipal IT. Just enough to keep the shop running, says the head of department.
But in order to modernize the apparatus, she would need at least twice as many people – mainly programmers and project managers. The result of lack of planning and staff shortages was foreseeable: many online services could not be implemented at all or only insufficiently. According to critics, it was often just “display window digitization”. This means that the users see beautiful websites, but the processes behind them are still analogous. In the future, you have to think holistically and digitize all processes, emphasizes O’Sullivan.
The councilwoman has only been in office for a little over a year. Sometimes she still wonders how it is in the German authorities cosmos. “You come into the political-administrative world, and there is often no objective reason why things are the way they are,” she says. “But they’re still like that.” In Frankfurt am Main, the municipal offices and companies have set up their own IT units over the years. There are now more than 60 in number.
“You made a decision in the ’90s to do it that way, which is, quite frankly, pretty hard on our feet now,” says O’Sullivan. Because: The more decentralized the administrative landscape is, the more difficult it is to develop uniform online services. This is probably one of the reasons why digitization was so successful in small Estonia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they started from scratch. In Germany, on the other hand, the historically grown silo bureaucracy is making the digital upheaval more difficult. To this day, there is still no central ID that citizens can use to register with all government online services.
Another reason why the update fails for the state can be seen with frightening clarity on a chart that the Regulatory Control Council created two years ago. It shows all the players who have a say in the digitization of administration in Germany. The sight makes you dizzy. Instead of clear decision-making processes, there is a jumble of responsibilities and competencies.
Judith Gerlach has witnessed this political confusion in recent years. The 37-year-old CSU politician has been Bavaria’s digital minister since 2018. She says: “In Germany at the moment, people form circles of chairs for five years in search of the perfect solution – and then realize that the technology is outdated again.”
For the future, it demands one thing above all: more speed and pragmatism. “We often talk about an idea until it dies. What I wish for is that we get going faster,” says Gerlach. Only: how could that work? Does a central authority like the Digital Ministry, which has been called for many times, be needed to organize the large modernization project?
In November, Gerlach traveled to Singapore. The Southeast Asian city-state is considered a digital pioneer and is networked like no other country. This is also due to the strong state digital agency GovTech, which has been implementing government digitization projects since 2016. It now has 3,500 employees, including 1,000 developers.
The CSU politician sees this as a role model for Germany: “If there is no digital ministry in Berlin, I would at least be in favor of a federal digital agency in which civil servants, experts and programmers work on practical IT solutions,” says Gerlach. In the future, it could support the federal states and municipalities in the implementation of digital projects. In Bavaria, the Digital Ministry is currently building up the state-owned agency Byte, which is intended to do just that.
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For Gerlach it is clear that Germany must not lose any more time. “We must not jeopardize our future by continuing to follow yesterday’s paths and leaving everything as it is,” she emphasizes. This means that the authorities must be encouraged to try out new technologies – and to be allowed to fail from time to time. Perhaps, according to Gerlach, this is the greatest challenge: innovative think tanks must develop from risk-averse, strictly hierarchical institutions.
Eileen O’Sullivan shares this assessment. In Frankfurt am Main she is trying to break down the silo culture by bringing office heads together in workshops. She is also concerned with conveying values that, in her view, should be lived in the authorities: willingness to change, flat hierarchies, cross-departmental teamwork. But it will be years before the cultural change bears fruit. You can’t prescribe the digital future. You have to create them.