No Connection

To see Germany's digital failure, just look inside the Bundestag

NSU-Ausschuss – Linke klagt über Aktenproblem
Digitalize this! Source: DPA

Health insurance with electronic identification, an iPad for every school child and the fastest possible internet speeds throughout the land – these are things that German politicians rave about when they discuss bringing Europe’s biggest economy into the “digital age.” Reality looks different. To see that, you only have to visit one room inside Germany’s parliament.

Visiting this so-called “key room” is “like traveling back in time to the [Helmut] Kohl era,” says Danyal Bayaz, a newly-minted representative for the Green party and former adviser at the Boston Consulting Group.

Room E353 is on the ground floor of Jakob Kaiser House, an uber-modern building, all glass and steel. Thousands of keys to, one imagines, thousands of parliamentary doors are managed here, many accessorized with their own small hand-written card. There’s a blue-inked stamp pad and stamp, and an ancient IBM typewriter, the kind that would fetch hundreds of dollars on any US website selling vintage collectibles. Anybody who wants one of these keys must come to Room E353, armed with a printed piece of paper – appropriately titled “key request” – and physically sign for the desired key.

“You get a whole other feeling here, about why digitalization is going so slowly in Germany,” Mr. Bayaz quips.

“Had there been better technology in place in those offices, we may not have experienced the refugee crisis the way we did.”

Frank-Jürgen Weise, Manager, Federal Agency of Migration and Refugees

For Mr. Bayaz, the time warp in Room E353’s is evidence of the yawning gap between what Germany’s politicians say and what they actually do.

Just the other day in Davos, Chancellor Angela Merkel talked up the importance of a digital upgrade. This week in parliament, she warned that Germany should not become a “museum for technology.” That’s how she and her various coalition partners have been talking for years. The outgoing coalition government, made up of the same parties as the likely incoming one, had already promised to update information technology in the 100 most important government offices. They broke that promise.

“There have been plenty of declarations of intention,” says Johannes Ludewig, head of the country’s National Regulatory Control Council, which monitors the costs of legislative compliance in terms of both time and money. “Now we really need something to actually happen.”

One person who can testify to this is Frank-Jürgen Weise, who ended up being one of the most important managers during Germany’s refugee crisis of 2015. Mr. Weise was already running the Federal Employment Agency when he stepped in to manage the Federal Agency of Migration and Refugees, after the previous manager quit. The latter agency was quite simply overburdened with the rapid influx of asylum seekers. When Mr. Weise arrived, there were piles of paperwork stacked high in corridors and offices.

“Had there been better technology in place in those offices, we may not have experienced the refugee crisis the way we did,” Mr. Weise says today. One example: Refugees had their passports taken off them with a view to sending them back by post – but nobody knew at what address the passport-holders were going to be.

Mr. Wiese was brought in because as head of the employment agency, he had already proven he knew how to bring about digital transformation. He lured Klaus Vitt, former IT chief at Deutsche Telekom, to the agency and paid him very well. The salary caused a small scandal. But that was also why the more modernized employment agency was able to help the struggling migration officials cope in 2015.

26 p7 Digital Latecomers 2-01

There are plenty of other areas where the Bundestag lags behind.  Granted, it is possible to live-stream parliamentary debates and download the results later. But even Thomas Jarzombek, a digital-agenda spokesman for the Christian Democrats, admits that Germany has not gone far enough when it comes to using technology to enhance government and bureaucracy.

Mr. Bayaz bemoans that lack of wireless internet in large parts of the parliamentary buildings. And the fact that he had to send multiple, combative faxes – yes, faxes – to be allowed to download iTunes software onto his Bundestag-issued computer.

Politician Jimmy Schulz, a digital expert for the Free Democrats in German parliament, had similar problems. When he first entered the Bundestag in 2009, he installed his own router in his offices so that he could avoid fights with the management. Back then Mr. Schulz was even called to order because he read his first speech from his iPad. Happily, these days politicians are allowed to bring tablets and iPads into the debating chamber.

Almost all the countries neighboring Germany make it easier for citizens and businesses to communicate electronically with their government than Germany does, says Gerhard Hammerschmid, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He describes the German authorities’ IT set-up as “stone age.”

Germans are aware that they are behind. A poll by Ipsos, a market research company, found that only 42 percent of Germans think German officialdom is advanced, or very advanced, in tech. In France and Great Britain, that number rises to over 60 percent, in Norway to 75 percent. A study by the European Commission ranks Germany 20th out of 28 countries, when it comes to digital management. At the same time, 85 percent of Germans are open to taking care of more business with their government online, the Ipsos study found.

If Germany caught up in e-government, it is estimated that businesses could save around €1 billion ($1.2 billion) a year and the public sector €3.9 billion ($4.9 billion). German citizens would save 84 million hours, not having to queue for paperwork at a local government office.

In the meantime, Dorothee Bär, the parliamentary state secretary for transport and digital infrastructure, will keep bringing visitors to the time warp that is Room 353, the “key room.” Besides the typewriter and other antiquities, she also likes to point out the handwritten card attached to her key, which still has her maiden name, Mantel, on it. She was married and changed her name in 2006.

Elisabeth Niejahr is chief reporter at WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global and Dana Heide is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Cathrin Schaer adapted this story in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors:,


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