Maintaining Momentum - or if Not Now, When?

The Corona crisis has brought with it an enormous digitalization push. Before the crisis, public administration in Germany in particular was far from being a digital (city) administration. How have public authorities responded to the crisis and the accompanying digitization requirements, and what hurdles still lie ahead?

Public administration has not fared so badly during the crisis. In any case, criticism of the German public administration for not having the situation under control has so far been restrained. Of course, there were authorities at the municipal, state, and federal levels that at the beginning of the lockdown that struggled to create capacity for working from home. But the situation was not all that much rosier for many companies in the private sector. They were equally caught off-guard by a widespread and long-lasting crisis and had to send employees home to work from there without any preparation. Many of these workers had only poorly equipped laptops (or none at all), they sometimes struggled with inadequate bandwidth at home, or used their personal PCs, tablets, and laptops. Much to the dismay of the security officers in the companies. But beggars can’t be choosers.

NRW accelerates digitalization of public administration

One positive example of administrative digitalization and readiness for working from home can be found in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). The entire Ministry of Economic Affairs was ready to have people working from home right away as the state’s entire public administration workforce of about 38,000 has been equipped with teleworking stations. There is a good reason for this: The state of NRW is assiduously pushing the digitalization of public administration and citizen services. Just at the beginning of March 2020 (i.e., shortly before the coronavirus crisis slammed head-on into the economy and public administration), the NRW cabinet passed a new e-government law that should be viewed as a model for all of Germany.

Instead of postponing digitalization to some vague point in the future, the state wants to move up the target for complete digitalization by six years to 2025 and is investing a total of one billion euros – 600 million euros more than originally planned. As Andreas Pinkwart, Minister of Economics and Digitalization, has stated, the rewards are worth the effort: “These investments will be offset by substantial gains in efficiency and savings from digitalization, and the bottom line is that the additional expenditures will have already been amortized in 2025.”

Digitalization backlog will break up

Despite such model behavior, the crisis has cast a light on a digitalization backlog in public administration. Nevertheless, this experience will contribute significantly to breaking up the logjam and generate additional momentum. We have seen conclusive proof that, even in a crisis, most internal processes and services can continue to function with the help of digital solutions. The general conditions for digital public administration have long been in place. E-government laws and the Online Access Act (OZG) laid the legal groundwork years ago. The challenge now is to build on this foundation with determination and to be even more courageous in pushing ahead with digitalization – although not every application will always function perfectly from the very beginning.

The development of smart city services demonstrates how courageous local authorities in particular can be when it comes to digitalization. In areas where mayors can digitalize their cities without having to overcome legal hurdles at every turn, ideas and projects are popping up all over. Autonomous buses that are scheduled to begin operation in city centers starting in 2021. Networked parking systems that use sensors to detect occupied and free parking spaces and guide drivers to the nearest available parking space. Networked streetlights that switch on and off automatically and also serve as hot spots for free Wi-Fi service in the city center. Examples like these are evidence of what is possible with just a little courage for innovation.

Boldness and pragmatism instead of perfection

Although essentially insignificant, an event in the small town of Tangerhütte in Saxony-Anhalt (population 5,500) attests to what can be achieved with greater courage. On 22 March, a completely digital town hall went online. Since then, all services for citizens can be handled digitally. Not really what you would call a spectacular event. And yet, this news was worthy of a few lines of mention in such a reputable publication as the Süddeutsche Zeitung. What made Tangerhütte so unusual was that, faced with the present crisis, the mayor pushed ahead with the development of the online portal at full speed to ensure the launch of the digital citizen service well in advance of the original schedule.

The digitalization laboratories set up in line with the OZG illustrate how, with more courage and pragmatism in lieu of perfection, public administration could drive digitalization. In these digitalization labs, interactive teams work in agile collaboration on the development of online applications. Online services are not implemented in the digitalization laboratories themselves. They simply supply the blueprint of digital applications for federal states and municipalities, including a concept package and implementation schedule. Accomplishments such as de facto interface standards lay important groundwork for accelerating the implementation of OZG applications in the federal states and municipalities.

Reality laboratories and experiment clause

Concepts such as the reality laboratories of the Federal Ministry of Economics (BMWi) also point in the right direction. Reality laboratories serve as test spaces where experience with digital innovations under real-life conditions can be obtained. These facilities use the instrument of experiment clauses to suspend or modify (in consultation with the competent approval offices) general legal conditions as they now exist for a limited time and scope.

According to the IT Planning Council, experiment clauses are an instrument of innovative administrative action. They could initiate or accelerate reform processes and at the same time provide strong impetus for legislation. “If we do not want to see our ‘regulatory processes always chasing’ after progress, we will need more flexibility and ‘breathing room’ in the future,” wrote the BMWi. The right approach for more and faster digitalization – and not only in public administration. The concepts behind OZG digitalization and reality laboratories are comparable, and together these two instruments could boost the digitalization of public administration by making more intense use of exceptions.

Certain public administration services such as the processing of applications for reimbursement of employer’s expenses incurred by quarantine of employees (Section 56 IfSG [Act for the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases]) are in especially high demand and will be developed in an express digitalization laboratory for online applications, promised the BMI. The express digitalization laboratory is also part of the implementation of the Online Access Act, which specifies 575 administrative services that are to be offered digitally by the end of 2022. Fourteen digitalization laboratories across Germany are working on the implementation of especially important services.

Agile development with fast results

In any case, the crisis manifests that under special conditions it suddenly becomes possible to drive ahead projects that were previously mired in repetitive discussions, an exaggerated concern with details, and the search for perfection. Until only a few years ago, software development was in the same predicament. Before an application became available, months were spent specifying the requirements, and the subsequent  development process often lasted for years. By the time the project concluded, the requirements had long since changed. In consequence, most major projects failed.

Today, on the other hand, applications are generally developed agilely, flexibly, and with sights set on specific goals. The objective is not to achieve speed at the expense of users who are mistreated as testers for unsafe, immature beta versions. The point is that often only actual practice clarifies what software users really want, what details could be tossed aside, and what functions may still be missing. In any case, applications must constantly evolve, especially since “the public sector must always adapt its applications to the use habits of the population,” as the editors of eGovernment MONITOR 2019 wrote.

Accelerating the digitalization of public administration

The pressure now being brought to bear will make some things happen faster. This “just do it principle” has been a constantly recurring theme throughout the coronavirus crisis – not only in public administration. After all, the business world has been reproached for years because of its half-hearted investment in digital transformation. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed how important the digitalization of administrative services is, stressed Horst Seehofer, Federal Minister of the Interior, in a press release from the Federal Ministry of the Interior issued at the beginning of April. The coronavirus has evinced that an exception to a rule can significantly accelerate digitalization. Digitalization laboratories should be more closely linked with the instrument of reality laboratories, a move that could set aside legal obstacles and maintain this pace.

Public administration will be different after the coronavirus has passed. Previously theoretical discussions will find expression in daily practice more quickly. “It pays to experiment,” is the message. Wherever public administration has been digitalized in short order, it has proved to be an effective tool. The changeover to working from home for such a large part of the workforce was a stress test for the systems – and despite startup difficulties, they have functioned.

Rapid pragmatism can drive digitalization forward. Public authorities should strive to preserve this pragmatism and couple it with a willingness to experiment and more courage. Where there is freedom, movement becomes possible, and ultimately it works. The passion for perfection and quality in Germany has always been a key element for success. But digitalization proceeds at a different pace. We must dare to experiment more, get solutions up and running faster, and add the finishing touches in practice. As has been normal in recent weeks. The coronavirus crisis illustrates well how we can move faster.


Many thanks for contributing to this article to Felix Dinnessen.