When Denmark’s administration went completely digital, all the hard copy documents stored at the Danish Embassy in Berlin were cleared out, leaving two empty rooms to welcome visitors. German authorities, according to the Danes, bought up their old, empty filing cabinets.
In stark contrast to Denmark, who ranks fourth in Europe when it comes to taking its administration digital, Germany comes in 20th place in the ranking by the European Commission. Filing cabinets are still a necessity for Germany’s government, which is well-known for its red tape and bureaucracy, but ideally not for much longer.
Experts hope that in the next four years, the country will dive into the untapped potential that awaits it if it streamlines mandatory tasks by making them digital, including the huge cost- and time-savings for businesses, citizens and, above all, the authorities. But they may be too optimistic. Managing the transition in a uniform way towers over Germany’s government like a giant, faceless behemoth.
Citizens would save 84 million hours per year if they could interact digitally with German bureaucrats.
In the last months of its joint term in office, the “Grand Coalition,” comprised of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats, passed an amendment to Germany’s constitution covering both federal and state governments that makes it possible to set up a portal for citizens.
A survey by consulting firm PwC showed that 91 percent of German citizens are willing to go online to complete administrative tasks – saving them valuable time. Germans could save 84 million hours per year if they interacted digitally with German bureaucrats which, in turn, translates into cost savings for businesses and the government itself. Denmark estimates annual savings across the public sector of $296 million ($357 million).
But only 41 percent of Germans have used e-government services in the last 12 months, according to another survey conducted by Initiative D21. The same survey showed that 54 percent of Germans who used the digital services were satisfied, a drop from 62 percent in 2016.
“In a digitalized world, where everything can easily be done online, the German administration is not keeping pace,” says Hannes Schwaderer, president of D21. “This is why there has been such a sharp decrease in respondents’ satisfaction.”
There are 500 administrative services in Germany, and in 2013, the “Grand Coalition,” promised to offer “at least the 100 most important and most frequently used administrative services” online, nationwide by 2017. Progress was pathetic.
This led to e-government becoming a talking point across several party platforms during the September 2017 elections and Peter Altmaier, chief of staff at the German chancellery, set a new goal of making the administration entirely digital by 2021.
In order to achieve this goal, each German state will be responsible for a certain number of administrative transactions, which will then be shared between the respective authorities, ensuring that the same task won’t be repeated two- or even three-times over. This requires federal authorities to store all documents electronically by 2020, which means modernizing the country’s official government registers. “What we have now set out to achieve is a tough task,” says Klaus Vitt, IT commissioner for the interior ministry.
Mr. Vitt argues that any changes by the incoming government, for example, to create a ministry dedicated to making documents digital, would be a hindrance to current efforts. “This would delay digitization of the administration by at least one year,” he warns.
Germany’s data privacy laws don’t make the transition any easier. Instead of following Denmark’s model, which stores citizens’ data centrally, the National Regulatory Control Council (NKR) proposed using the Austrian model, which ensures citizens’ data is stored at different locations – allowing authorities to access them in a targeted and isolated manner with the respective party's consent.
But linking various registers digitally would also have another advantage: The government census would not need to be painstakingly compiled every 10 years via surveys. It could be generated faster, more accurately and less expensively by accessing the data already stored within the system.
By mid-2018, at least 4 of Germany’s 500 administrative services should be online and accessible through a citizens’ portal, including digital applications to receive parental and child benefits, applying for birth certificates and applying for a Schengen visa. They will also be adding a central e-invoice service, allowing companies to send electronic invoices to the authorities in the near future.
These first planned improvements show that the groundwork for the transition has been laid, and there is great hope that Germany won’t be playing catchup for long. But reality shows it is far too early to bid farewell to those clunky filing cabinets.
Dana Heide is a Berlin-based correspondent for Handelsblatt where she covers the Ministry of Economic Affairs, especially digital policy, innovation and small and medium-sized companies. To contact the author: [email protected]