Public Administration at the Crossroads

If the German public administration is to ensure its resilience, i.e., that it is ready for the future and prepared to handle any crises, it must fundamentally question its own organization. How well the administration succeeds in finding answers to the current challenges will determine how flexibly it can respond to crises in the future and deal with the rapidly changing conditions in our society.

Public administration in Germany is facing a huge transformation task that, in addition to current developments and events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, is being driven by two long-term trends: demographic change and the general development toward a digital society.

The massive shortage of skilled workers will force public administration to deal with demographic developments in particular in the future. This year alone, the German Civil Servant Federation estimates the number of unfilled positions in the administration at 360,000. The officials from the time of especially high birth rates — the baby boomers — will not retire until the end of this decade, but at that time, nearly one in four administrative workers will be leaving.

Germany’s public administration must respond: processes must be automated and rendered less labor-intensive, and IT support in government offices and, in particular, the networking of the administration must be significantly expanded to counteract the impact of demographic change. But this alone will not suffice to modernize public administration in the long term. Our society is becoming increasingly digital, diversified, and short-paced. Although the German public administration is ramping up its response to these changes, it is falling short of its own aspirations.

Administrative services as easy as online shopping

The country’s citizens expect, and rightly so, to be able to utilize administrative services as easily as their online shopping. Employees in public administration also want a modern workplace and consistently digital solutions. All this is possible, as countless examples from industry and private business demonstrate. Nevertheless, the general use of modern solutions sometimes requires a change in culture within government agencies and, in some places, even the adaptation of regulations or laws to accommodate modern processes.

This cultural transformation must be driven by a consistent service orientation that aligns the mindset and actions of public administration with the positive structuring of our modern and digital lives in society.

Unlimited collaboration, but digital

Besides the challenges described above, public administration must confront its own complexity. Indeed, cooperation among the administrations of the German states as well as across European borders has become enormously important — and will become even more relevant in the coming years because of external constraints and a growing desire for mutual cooperation.

The war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic are acting as accelerators, throwing the failures of recent years and the challenges that remain into sharp relief. The greatest challenge: public administration can ensure the performance of government tasks such as public safety and health supraregionally and internationally as well as locally.

There is no question that a meaningful exchange of information can no longer be based on analog processes — they must be digitalized and automated. In view of this background, it is important that the foundations for any project are laid at the highest level and, above all, as a common effort. Uniform standards must be introduced, technical structures for data exchange must be created, and the digital infrastructure must be expanded.

Rethinking public administration

Meeting the challenges of a digital world will require nothing less than a complete redesign of the operating model of public administration. The process demands the questioning of familiar organizational structures to determine whether they will be able to contribute to a service-oriented, efficient, and resilient administration in the future. The organization of everyday administrative processes and the technologies used to support them must be critically reviewed, but no less important is the issue of empowerment of employees in the future.

If public administration in Germany does not adequately meet its challenges and its digital transformation fails, its ability to act will be severely curtailed in the future. While this will have an especially negative impact in the event of crises, even the general effects would be detrimental to citizens, business, and science. The recognition and harnessing of the tremendous opportunities and potential inherent in administrative digitalization are of utmost importance. Their realization will turn public administration into a partner for citizens or companies in the future and simultaneously pave the way for its positioning as an attractive employer.