German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the digital agenda is one of “the most important undertakings” of her government “because the digital revolution affects us in almost all areas of life.”
True to her “We can do it!” motto, made famous during refugee crisis last year, she seems to believe the same in the digital realm too: “Germany can do it!”
Except that little progress has been made so far.
It’s been two years since the chancellor’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and its minority coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, presented their “homework list,” as Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière called the agenda.
Two years back, full of good resolutions, economics minister and SPD chair Sigmar Gabriel banded together with Digital Infrastructure and Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party.
The two ministers set out to present an IT security law, expand Germany’s creaky broadband network, promote startups and more.
But the results have been mixed so far. According to Eco International, a Germany-based internet association, only 40 percent of the points important for the digital economy have been worked through. These include broadband expansion, copyright law reforms and the goal of becoming a top encryption location.
“Nobody says much anymore about the big promise to make Germany the number one country of digital growth.”
Many tasks “have not yet been carried out,” according to Oliver Süme. the deputy chair of Eco. He is calling for the government “not to lean back and shift into electoral campaign mode.”
The government had grandly announced that by 2018 it would connect everyone to rapid broadband internet, meaning at least 50 megabits per second. The problem: At first no money was budgeted, then a little less than €2 billion. With some delay, a support program got started and soon the first cables are supposed to be laid.
For a good while now, the talk has been only of an “intermediate goal.”
Lars Klingbeil, an SPD politician with internet expertise, is calling for “an optical fiber strategy.” The CDU also favors achieving gigabits through optical fibers.
But the upgrading is proceeding “far too slowly,” according to Alexander Bode, head of the CDU’s Young Economic Council.
Young adults in the business community share this opinion. “Our firms need a high-performing fiber optical internet,” said Hubertus Porschen, head of the German Association of Young Entrepreneurs. It is “not nearly efficient enough in many areas.”
And Germany’s internet ambassador, Berlin professor Gesche Joost, is also unimpressed.
“A few points of the Digital Agenda are being addressed,” she said, citing for example a regulatory framework for the digital economy. Other fields, however, are “lying fallow,” she said.
There has scarcely been progress in digital education, she noted, and more people in society are being left behind. Yet what is at stake is “participation in an entirely new technology,” as Ms. Merkel said in 2014.
Ms. Joost did praise a new WiFi law that was passed after long wrangling. It states, for example, that restaurant owners are no longer liable if they offer free internet access and someone uses it for illegal purposes.
Ms. Joost is also pleased with the agreement concerning privacy protection in the European Union. Common standards are “of fundamental importance for consumers and companies,” she explained.
Digital administration, however, is not in sight.
The head of the National Regulatory Control Council, Johannes Ludewig, called for “bold decisions in favor of a far-reaching digitization of society.” There should be a cultural transformation in bureaucracy, he said – whether in making public data available for new business ideas or replacing trips to government offices with digital access.
The political parties are outbidding each other with new promises for the time after the 2017 election.
The Christian Democrats plan for government administration to be digitally reachable around the clock, and for online applications to be processed twice as quickly as those on paper.
“E-government needs to be pushed more nationwide, and citizens must see real benefits,” said Mr. Bode, a member of the Digitization Network of the CDU. “The next level could be ignited with a tax bonus and substantial fee reductions for citizens submitting applications online.”
The Digitization Network is also calling for a digital minister — in the chancellery. The minister would bring together diverse responsibilities and end the wrangling over competencies.
The Social Democrats, on the other hand, want jurisdiction for privacy protection to be taken from the interior minister and placed with the justice minister.
And the opposition parties criticize general lack of progress on the government’s highly touted Digital Agenda.
“Nobody says much anymore about the big promise to make Germany the number one country of digital growth,” said Konstantin von Notz, deputy floor leader of the Green Party.
He blamed “competency chaos.” The government, he said, has “scarcely moved forward in all major aspects of internet expansion because of divergent interests between ministries.”
Handelsblatt’s Daniel Delhaes writes about politics out of the newspaper’s Berlin office. To contact the author: email@example.com