Bureaucracy 1.0

Germany lags getting government services online

NSU-Ausschuss – Linke klagt über Aktenproblem
Pushing paper. Source: DPA

Before Germans do anything, they want to organize how they’re going to do it, and the government is no different. Although the country wants to put much of its legendary bureaucracy online by 2022, Berlin isn’t yet sure who is going to do what.

Federal, state and municipal officials so far only know who will be responsible for 347 of the 575 administrative services destined for online. That doesn’t mean they have completed the transition to digital — far from it. It only means they know which state or city will develop the application so everybody can use it.

“It is extremely unlikely that all administrative services will transition to digital with this method by 2022,” Martin Schallbruch, deputy director of the Digital Society Institute at ESMT University, says. Four years ago, the previous government came up with a plan to put 100 of the top government services online by 2017. None are.

Germany ranks 20th

No wonder Germany ranks 20th among European countries in the availability of online administrative services. Smaller countries like Estonia and Denmark lead the pack, but even Spain is in sixth place, according to a survey by the European Commission. France comes in ninth.

Business has been clamoring for digital government services for years and private citizens have expressed interest in it as well. Not only is it more comfortable than traipsing to various government offices, but it brings big savings in time and money. Business could save €1 billion if forms could be filled out online and the government bureaucracy itself would save €3.9 billion. Citizens could spend 84 million fewer hours a year in government offices.

Laws would have to be changed to enable the digital forms, overhauling requirements for signatures and record keeping, for instance.

Needs hands-on commitment

Exceptions like the new online procedure for registering a company in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia prove the rule. Entrepreneurs can do everything “from their living room,” brags the state economics minister, Andreas Pinkwart. It took 10 years to get those forms online, and it only happened when the minister himself got involved.

So far the responsible federal government ministers have shown little interest in this kind of hands-on approach. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is in charge of the federal bureaucracy, has focused on immigration issues. The chief of staff in the chancellor’s office, Helge Braun, who is in charge of digital innovation among other things, has been kept busy with those other things.

But experts don’t see how the government can meet its targets without this kind of commitment. As Mr. Schallbruch said, “The government as a whole should prioritize more forcefully which of the 500 services go first into digital.”

Dana Heide covers economic policy for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: heide@handelsblatt.com.

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