The Online Access Act (OZG) as a Starting Point for eGovernment and Administrative Digitization

Overall, within the context of eGovernment, it is very likely that the OZG will become a major challenge in digitizing the public administration. Although there is an ongoing conversation about digitizing administrative services in relation to the OZG, in practice most OZG-projects are purely focused on the digital submission of applications as required by law and disregard the underlying process of handling administrative services. Fabian Horbach explains how the digitization of the citizen contact will lead to more digitization and efficiency in German offices and authorities.

eGovernment in Germany

Contrary to its frequently stated ambitions, the Federal Republic of Germany continues to perform rather poorly in international comparisons of eGovernment rankings. Although the foundations for a comprehensive and modern eGovernment strategy were laid scientifically as early as 2005, the digitization of the administration in the sense of eGovernment is still faltering today. Germany still has a lot of catching up to do, particularly in comparison with its smaller neighboring countries or other smaller EU states such as Austria, Luxembourg or Estonia. In the Digital Economy and Society Index 2020 published by the EU Commission, Germany ranks only 21st in the area of eGovernment.

It is striking that it is not only the range of digital administrative services that lags behind other countries, but also the use of existing digitized services. This results in a vicious circle for eGovernment projects: the low level of offerings on the one hand, with insufficient user-friendliness and, in some cases, a lack of added value, ensures low user acceptance, which means that the hoped-for positive efficiency gains do not materialize. As a result, the administration often lacks the motivation to take on the sometimes highly complex digitization projects. Inadequately used and poorly implemented digital (sub-)processes thus also lead to additional costs for the administration rather than to a reduction in resources.

The targeted reduction of the currently still visible backlogs with regard to eGovernment and administrative digitization would offer enormous potential savings in terms of time and money for Germany, its administration and, in particular, its citizens and companies. The example of eGovernment pioneers such as Estonia shows that structurally weaker regions can also benefit particularly from the digitization of administration, where analog processes are otherwise complicated and time-consuming.

In order to catch up with the other EU countries, which is visible overall, the Act to Improve Online Access to Administrative Services (Online Access Act, OZG) came into force in 2017. This law obliges the federal government, the states and local authorities to offer all administrative services digitally by the end of 2022 and to combine them into a network via portals. In an OZG implementation catalog, 575 overarching OZG services for digitization were collected, which currently bundle more than 5560 individual services (so-called service catalog services, LeiKa services).

If you take a close look at the OZG and the current plans, it becomes clear that we will still have to deal with a number of challenges in this regard. The most obvious challenge is rooted in the shortness of time. Although the OZG already came into force in 2017, it required a very long start-up phase at the beginning, during which structures were created, people began to deal with exchange standards, responsibilities were distributed, or the OZG was also partially put on the back burner.

In the overall context of eGovernment, it will probably become clear that the limited focus of the OZG will develop into a challenge for administrative digitization. Although there is always talk of digitizing administrative services with reference to the OZG, in practice most OZG projects focus purely on the digital application process required by law and disregard the underlying process of processing administrative services. Against the backdrop of limited time, lack of human resources and funding, and the absence of a legal obligation, this is understandable. However, the exclusive digitization of an application will not necessarily bring about the hoped-for and desired digitization boost all the way into the administrative processes.

The OZG as a driver of eGovernment

In many cases, the federal states are endeavoring under the OZG to develop uniform state application assistants for as many standardizable procedural applications as possible and to make these available to the municipalities for use. Against the background of investment protection, however, the municipalities are not obligated to use these state standards, but can continue to use solutions that have already been developed or even develop their own solutions.

But what happens in the further processing of applications?

Digitizing the application process can only be the first of many steps. In practice, it is often the case that specialist departments use special software for further processing of applications, so-called specialist procedures. For other procedural applications, however, there is currently still completely informal processing in the authorities, which means that no specialized procedures are used and processing is sometimes carried out completely analogously.

The specialized procedures present the practical implementation of OZG performance with the challenge that interfaces for data transfer must be developed and implemented - both on the part of the states and municipalities and on the part of the manufacturers of the specialized procedures. This is often much more time-consuming and extensive than had been imagined at the beginning of the OZG implementation. The interfaces are mostly realized via XÖV, an XML standard in public administration.

The use of specialized procedures offers the advantage that the downstream application processing is already carried out digitally. This means that, in some cases for the first time, applications can be processed in the departments without media discontinuity. In many cases, however, especially when the application process is complex and involves other offices, integrated application processing without media discontinuity is still a long way off.

Modern collaboration tools offer enormous efficiency potential

Thus, within the framework of the OZG implementation projects which we consultants from Detecon are supporting as experts, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the use of specialized procedures for process digitization of the application process cannot be the last step by a long shot. Particularly with regard to the complex procedures mentioned, there is enormous potential for efficiency and simplification in a continuous digitization of the entire application and processing procedures. Frequently, documents for the purpose of participation are still sent by mail from one specialized office to the next, whereby not only a great deal of time - in some cases several days - is lost, but often also opportunities for direct and uncomplicated communication and information transfer. Modern collaboration tools and participation platforms, which are connected to the specialized procedures or in which the application processing itself can be carried out, nowadays offer the possibility of sharing application documents between authorities, commenting on them or describing them, whereby a dispatch - also by e-mail - is unnecessary, but the data sovereignty can remain with the specialized office which received the application.

The use of such digital solutions is an important step in the spirit of eGovernment. It leads to greater process efficiency, facilitates the work of those handling the processes in the departments, strengthens communication, and reflects other aspects such as data economy and resource conservation by avoiding physical mail and printed materials.

In our consulting approach to OZG projects, we therefore try to take into account the wishes and needs of the municipalities and departments interested in implementing further eGovernment projects downstream of the OZG as early as the creation of the digital applications. In this way, we can lay the foundations for further end-to-end digitization of the departments and processes in the OZG projects we support, without focusing on this directly in the creation of application assistants.