E-Government in Germany – What’s the state of digital administration?

Thanks to digital administration, government services can become more effective, more citizen-friendly and more transparent. But Germany is lagging behind in a European comparison - why is that and how can we catch up?

Storytime: When I first moved away from home, I didn't miss the registration deadline at my destination by all that much. Why? Because the next available appointment was over a month in the future.

But how cool would it have been if I could have relaxed and done the whole thing from the comfort of my empty, refrigerator-less apartment and received the Telekom employee for the DSL connection right afterwards? That's where digital administration comes in - or could come in. While in many other European countries it has long been possible to take care of administrative matters via smartphone, in Germany most matters still require a visit to the office. That's supposed to change... although that's been the case for years.


What is e-government?


Using a mobile device to access administrative services from anywhere - this is made possible by digital administration. The common understanding is that digital administration is part of what is known as e-government (although some believe that e-government can only be said to exist when the entire public sector, including the judiciary and government, is automated or even autonomous).

E-government must be thought of as a general guiding principle rather than a specific, clearly defined process. As is so often the case, several definitions exist, which differ primarily in terms of how broadly the term is defined. Fundamentally, however, they are all about exactly what the name suggests: the use of ICT (information and communications technology) in business processes relating to administration and government. Depending on the interpretation, this can be limited to public administration or encompass the entire state authority and all its tasks. In 2000, for example, the German Informatics Society defined e-government as 'the implementation of processes of public decision-making, decision-making and service provision in politics, government and administration with very intensive use of information technology.'

The spectrum of definitions represents a kind of scale: on the one side is basal (i.e., weak) digitalization. Here, 'merely' a conversion to digital formats takes place, but without any fundamental change in processes and structures. This includes, for example, electronic record keeping or the provision of government services (additionally) online.

On the other hand, there would be 'strong digitalization' all the way to the digital state. The structure of government action and administrative processes would change significantly through the use of digital technologies. The strongest conceivable variant of digitalization would be data-driven administration. Here, not only work processes but also decision-making processes would be automated or even autonomized - the control of public life through legal norms would be replaced by control through data analyses.


If this sounds scary or a little too extreme, let us tell you at this point that in Germany we are currently attempting the first stage of basic digitalization: the transfer of existing structures to a digital environment. We are still a long way from a digital data-driven state. In any case, this would not even be possible in the current legal environment for government action and administrative processes.


Why e-government?


Anyone who has ever wanted to (or had to) make use of a government service knows how time-consuming and lengthy the process can be. For many requests, you have to appear in person, so you have to make an appointment. Depending on the workload of the respective office, this appointment is more or less far away. What's more, it's not uncommon for available appointments to fit reluctantly into one's own daily schedule.

The digitalization of administration aims to make processes easier for citizens on the one hand, but also for employees in offices and authorities on the other. According to Guckelberger, properly implemented digitization of government agencies can make administrative services more effective, more transparent, more citizen-friendly and less expensive. For example, long waiting times for appointments, travel and on-site waiting times are eliminated.

The consulting firm McKinsey calculated that the digitalization of the most important administrative services could save citizens 84 million hours of time and companies one billion euros in costs per year.


The OZG 2017


The OZG (short for Online Access Act) was enacted on August 14, 2017 and came into force four days later on August 18. The goal should be to make administrative services accessible online for citizens. In concrete terms, this means that the federal, state and local governments were obliged to offer all administrative services electronically by the end of 2022 at the latest and to combine them in a portal network. Specifically, this includes a catalog of 575 government services. The law defines key terms and creates a legal basis for data processing. Among other things, it stipulates that, with the user's consent, permanent storage and transmission to the authority responsible for the respective administrative service are permissible. At the same time, the user must have the option of deleting all stored data, as well as the user account itself, at any time.


What could have been done?


We are in 2018, and the Online Access Act was only recently passed. A mammoth task is faced. How to tackle this challenge, how to start the long and complex process of government digitization?

In a 2018 report, McKinsey outlined how the goals of the Online Access Act can be achieved. Here, for example, it was described that implementation in two models would be worthwhile: large authorities could take their cue from models of successful digitalization from the private sector due to superior resources. Smaller, primarily municipal, institutions should be given the opportunity to adopt solutions developed elsewhere, adapt them to their circumstances and integrate them into their ecosystem. In this way, smaller authorities and offices across Germany could share solutions with one another and assemble their digital offerings according to the modular principle.

In addition, the German government should do even more to create the appropriate framework conditions needed for nationwide digitalization. An overarching strategy should be drawn up here and clear targets set to give development a direction. After all, the expansion of e-government and thus 'digitization of the administration' is an undertaking of enormous proportions. A structured approach is therefore essential. The same applies to common IT platforms and technical standardization to make the offerings of the various authorities interoperable, i.e., to enable seamless data exchange between different agencies. Otherwise, there is a risk that different government agencies will 'talk past' each other, and the 'once-only' principle, for example, will also function inadequately.

Digital processes also require modern legal foundations. Digitalization is changing the collective understanding of privacy and data protection. Legal regulations based on an outdated understanding of privacy are a major hurdle for the digitalization of public authorities. In response, McKinsey emphasizes the potential of a 'registry modernization law' that would provide an appropriate legal framework for electronic data transfer between government agencies via state registries.


Unlike companies in the free economy, public administration is subject to special requirements.

What has been accomplished?


To cut a long story short, the goal was missed. When it became apparent in May 2022 that the self-imposed targets would not be met, the IT Planning Council decided to prioritize 35 services to be made available digitally across the board by the end of the year. These were 'one-for-all' projects (similar to the modular principle mentioned above). Digital administrative services developed for one federal state are thus to be used by others as well. That sounds like a good idea. However, one thing caused head-scratching: the list of prioritized services includes applying for parental allowance and, among other things, gun permits. According to Tagesschau, the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Homeland explained that the relevance for citizens and the realization forecast by the end of the year were motivations for the selection of government services. Here it almost seems as if the realization forecast weighed more heavily in the weighing process.

Now one might think that after this (all in all) flop, the plan would be to pick up the pace again and rework the remaining processes as quickly as possible. Wrong thinking. After the last deadline for the provision of the digital offer could not be met, there is now simply not going to be a grace period at all. (Good, then at least it can't be missed.)


Nevertheless, the IT representative of the German government writes on the website of the Ministry of the Interior that there have been recognizable successes and that the German administration has demonstrated its ability to innovate. Despite falling behind schedule, the process should be viewed positively.

Now the Online Access Act 2.0 is to drive the process forward, albeit at an indefinite pace. Among other things, the federal government is to provide a uniform digital citizen account to replace state-owned citizen accounts. The states will then be obliged to ensure that the technical and organizational requirements for connecting to the portal network are in place. This should further ease the burden on municipalities, as they do not have to set up their own infrastructure, but only need to be connected to the joint infrastructure of the federal government. On the other hand, this directly avoids problems with the interoperability (i.e., the seamless cooperation of different systems) of the state and local governments' own portals with that of the federal government.


Where does the (inhibiting) shoe pinch?


When something hasn't worked, it's often helpful to think about what the problem was. The federal government's IT representative, for example, finds that before 2017, neither structures nor a culture that would have permitted the digital transformation of the administration were in place. That's probably true, but it's not something that comes as a surprise or is not one's own fault. Moreover, this only shows that the problem has existed for a long time, not where it comes from.


'The business world can do it, too' - which is why digitization in the public sector is a different matter.


Digitization in companies is also making progress in Germany (we reported here on the impact of the Corona crisis on digitization and innovation). Although we are not pioneers in this area in an international comparison, we are nevertheless a good deal further ahead than in the area of administrative digitization. Why is that? Can't we just learn a bit from the beacons of digitalization in business enterprises?

As already explained, it can be helpful, especially for larger authorities, to take a cue from business role models. However, it is important to realize that this also has its limits. Of course, private-sector companies must also comply with legal regulations and take data protection into account when digitalizing their processes, for example. But unlike companies in the private sector, public administration, as part of government action, is once again bound by special requirements.

For example, it must not orient itself exclusively to the interests of Germany as a business location or to increasing internal efficiency, because it is primarily obligated to the common good. This includes an effective, efficient and citizen-oriented administration, and in the 21st century, this also includes offering its services digitally. On the other hand, this must not exclude certain groups of people from using administrative services.

In addition to the tripartite nature of the German state, the intensity of digitization activities is restricted by legal requirements. For example, cooperation between authorities is possible and profitable from a pure digitization perspective. However, their extent at the municipal level is determined by the guarantee of self-government and constitutionally by the principles of democracy and the rule of law. The latter can be justified by the fact that administrative action under the rule of law must always be legitimized democratically in the form of an unbroken chain of legitimation, which also includes clarity of competencies and responsibility. It must therefore be clear to the recipient of administrative services which body is responsible for the underlying processes. This also brings up the issue of liability risks in the cooperation between authorities. For example, if an authority shifts parts of its administrative process to another authority, it must accept responsibility for misinformation or other breaches of duty.

On the other hand, outsourcing to private software developers could also be problematic. If they are responsible for large parts of the digitalization of administrative processes, the risk of dependency increases. If administrative acts were to be issued completely automatically at some point in the future, it would be at least critical from the point of view of democracy and the rule of law if the algorithmic determination of these processes were to be the responsibility of private actors.

For these very reasons, cross-agency and cross-level initiation and facilitation of digitization activities is essential for seamless and constitutionally sound administrative digitization.


There is a lack of commitment, a lack of dedication to the process. Where is the digital pioneering spirit? Where is the touted innovation(capability)?

Administrative structure and commitment (or lack thereof).


In order to digitize the administrative system across the board, it is of urgent necessity that federal, state, local governments pull together. The end result of this process should be user-friendly, clear, interoperable digital offerings. That won't work if everyone does their own thing. It's not for nothing that the Handelsblatt headline says that the digitization of public administration resembles a patchwork quilt. What's needed is coordination and collaboration, and at best a direction from higher up. Administrative digitization cannot be ceded to individual IT or HR departments; it must be guided and accompanied on a larger scale to ensure that the solutions work together seamlessly in the end.

So the problem isn't that money isn't available, or that technology is lacking. The problem is the lack of clear strategic direction from offices, the lack of digital literacy from leaders who are supposed to be coordinating the process. There is a lack of unification and standardization between offices. There is a lack of personnel capable of driving the process. There is a lack of motivation at the highest level to drive the process forward. Germany is so far behind in administrative digitization that it is a bit embarrassing (in the 'digital public services' category, Germany 'achieved' 18th place out of 27 among EU countries last year), and the pressure not to fall further behind is becoming unbearable. On the other hand, people don't want to have to deal with it personally, so important planning tasks are pushed further and further down the list. And that is the point where you're in a fine mess.

There is a lack of commitment, a lack, as corny as it sounds, of dedication to the process. Where is the digital pioneering spirit? Where is the touted innovation (capability)?


What happens now?


Targets have been set once again. By the end of the current legislative period, the major goal is to ensure that all government agencies can fit on a smartphone, i.e., that all government services are available digitally. To this end, the digital ID card is to be used and the digital ID and the federal user account are to be further developed. Data exchange between the various agencies is to make the multiple submission of different data, certificates and other documents obsolete. According to the 'once-only principle,' it will be sufficient for users to submit their information once to one location. The exchange will then take place automatically, if necessary for other purposes, without citizens having to do anything. Citizens should be able to view the data flow in so-called 'data protection cockpits'. This will ensure transparency about who receives what data and for what purposes. In this way, e-government will finally be able to realize its potential in Germany. (Here we have discussed in more detail how we can catch up on digitization).




Still as true in 2023 as it was in 2017: Germany still has a long way to go in terms of administrative digitization. How quickly or slowly we progress on it is difficult to predict and depends on a variety of factors. Some of them, such as the country's federal structure, will not change. Admittedly, this is a circumstance that makes the process more difficult compared to more centrally organized states. However, this should at best be a hurdle to be faced and solved, and not a reason to let the efforts slide.

We simply have to be clear: It is the lack of commitment at the planning level that has been holding back digitization for years and relegating Germany to a digital outsider existence. By 2025, we want to make it into the top 10 of the EU's DESI administrative rankings. It will be interesting to see how far we fall short of this goal this time.


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