Rules and regulations Bureaucrat, heal thyself

Belatedly, the German government is worried its red tape is getting out of hand. True to form, task forces have been created to tackle the problem.
Quelle: dpa
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Germany is traditionally a stronghold of rules and regulations, teeming with zealous officials to enforce them. Believe it or not, that thicket of procedures has come to be recognized as a serious problem. The classic response? Appoint special bureaucrats to slash the red tape.

Step forward, Stephan Naundorf, civil servant in charge of pruning the state's vast bureaucracy. Naundorf works for the Federal Chancellery’s Better Regulation Unit, where he oversees cooperation with parliamentary groups and economic organizations.

Now, this government really wants to get tough on “bureaucracy reduction,” a term mentioned no less than five times in last year’s coalition agreement. Naundorf, fortunately, hasn't been left alone to face the enemy in the war on unnecessary regulations, poorly-worded laws and administrative duplication.

His allies include Helge Braun, Angela Merkel's Chief of Staff, whose portfolio lists digitization and bureaucracy reduction, plus Hendrik Hoppenstedt, the federal coordinator for bureaucracy reduction, who focuses on cooperation between the federal and state levels of government.

Then there's Dorothee Bär, the official Commissioner for Digitization. Appointed by the chancellor only last year, she already seems a little tired of the fight. After trying to persuade the country’s officials to embrace online forms, she complained publicly about the “time and stress” the whole business had cost her.  

Regulating the regulations

Still, there have been some successes. In 2015, the so-called “bureaucracy brake” was introduced, meant to limit new rules and to ensure that new regulations actually do what they aim to.

The hopeful measure includes a “one in, one out” rule: If a ministry imposes a new rule on German businesses, it has to abolish an old one. New laws must be simple, understandable and well-targeted. And ministries are encouraged to bring in non-lawyers to help with drafting new regulations.

Official guidelines on governance encourage the ministries to set clear goals for new regulations, and to undertake audits to see if new rules have done what they were supposed to do. Ministries must also publish any costs arising from new regulations. 

Limited influence

Citizens looking to learn more about these riveting processes may consult another official body, the National Regulatory Council, an independent watchdog tasked with assessing the impact of regulations and slashing red tape. It claims that mandatory reporting alone costs German business over €50 billion ($57 billion) every year.

One major snag for anti-bureaucracy crusaders: Their efforts have no jurisdiction over measures imposed by the European Union, or by courts of law.

For example, the German constitutional court ruled last year that the country’s local property taxes were fundamentally unfair and must be revised by the end of 2019. One unintended consequence was a steep increase in the information property owners must report to the government.

Gerd Appenzeller is a senior editor and former publisher of Tagesspiegel. Brían Hanrahan adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today.