An Interview with Ernst Bürger, Deputy Director General, Administrative Modernisation and Administrative Organisation, Office of the IT Planning Council, Federal Government of Germany
"Automation can never completely replace employees, and government responsibilities can never be entrusted to machines. It must be transparent to our citizens and businesses that the government does not automate decision-making processes."
FST Government: As Deputy Director General for Administrative Modernisation and Organisation, you play a decisive role as an innovation and change driver. How has Germany’s public service progressed in its digital transformation journey? Walk us through your plan to advance digitisation across state functions.
Bürger: In Germany, the challenges posed by digital transformation were identified early on. Social stakeholders in the field of digital transformation have been exerting increasing pressure on government to make administrative services accessible online for our citizens.
Across all levels of the federal system, the Online Access Act creates the legal framework conditions for manifesting the right to digital administrative services. On this basis, Germany intends not only to digitalise administrative services by 2022 but also to revise and simplify the underlying processes. In this process, which involves the digital implementation of several hundred administrative services, government pursues a user-centric approach and positions itself as a provider of up-to-date services which helps to enhance public acceptance of the government.
FST Government: eGovernment promises much for citizens in enhancing public service delivery – from mobile service portals to future-forward predictive services. However, large-scale digital deployments are a considerable investment for any government, particularly one with a complex bureaucracy like Germany’s. How willingly has the German Federal Government (and its constituent states) embraced the transition to eGovernment? What resistance or impediments has it faced and how have you sought to overcome these challenges?
Bürger: The fact that there is a need for government action to take account of societal changes is reflected in the current efforts of the German Federal Government to drive forward the digital transformation of public administration by implementing the Online Access Act. It will take an unconditional resolve to implement this Act if the legal framework conditions are to be met by 2022 and if the most important administrative services are to be made available online. There is awareness of this need both at the governmental and the parliamentary level. It is, in particular, the complex bureaucracy in Germany that poses additional challenges to the players involved. Frequently, these challenges also involve opportunities which must be exploited also in the federal context in cooperation with the federal states.
While the implementation of eGovernment may have been somewhat sluggish in the past, the legal obligations resulting from the Online Access Act push all parties involved to actually implement the legislation. For this reason, all stakeholders involved in Germany share the aim to achieve a successful digital transformation of public administration.
FST Government: eGovernment is ultimately about empowering citizens with greater choice, accessibility and ease of use of public services. Yet in this increasingly data-dependent environment, many citizens fear their private information may be compromised or exposed. How do we find that magical balance between protecting data and preserving citizens’ inherent right to privacy, whilst also expanding and delivering service-rich digital government?
Bürger: In Germany, data protection has a special priority. In order to meet the high standards laid down in national and European law, it is therefore necessary to plan forward when developing new services for citizens and businesses. Data protection considerations must already be taken into account in the requirements analysis. The active involvement of data protection experts must therefore be considered standard practice in Germany.
An adequate balance between data protection concerns and the potential benefits of digital transformation is achieved both by means of technical measures and by carefully considering what data are actually necessary in order to use a particular service. This approach is considered to be a successful model that meets with the necessary societal acceptance.
FST Government: Fellow EU member state Estonia is often hailed as the global benchmark in progressive eGovernment, making impressive strides in digital IDs, eHealth records, and internet voting. What lessons can Germany – and indeed all OECD governments – take from this vanguard approach to digital government? Are there others you look to as a model for digital government in Germany?
Bürger: Estonia’s eGovernment is considered the global benchmark in particular with regard to the extent of administrative services that have been digitalised. From Germany’s perspective, the largely successful digital transformation in Estonia seems to be based in particular on the starting conditions that prevailed in Estonia. Following Estonia’s independence in 1991, the country had the opportunity to build up new administrative structures. This relatively young administration was extremely successful at exploiting the opportunities offered by digitalisation. By comparison, the digital transformation of structures that have evolved over a long period of time takes much longer.
In our view, this shows essentially that – in the context of digital transformation – new administrative processes, in particular, need to be redesigned in order to provide up-to-date solutions that are in line with societal challenges. For this reason, procedures should not only be digitalised but also streamlined with a view to reducing bureaucracy. This is the guiding principle followed by Germany in implementing the Online Access Act.
FST Government: The Single Digital Gateway is a major cross-border digital initiative between EU member states. Take us through some key goals of this initiative. What challenges does the German Federal Government face in implementing this initiative? As Australia progresses with its own data-sharing regime, what lessons can our Federal Government take in delivering more collaborative and fruitful open data environment between state entities?
Bürger: The purpose of the Single Digital Gateway is to provide citizens and businesses in EU member states with simplified and cross-border access to central administrative services. This digital gateway is expected to provide citizens and businesses with easy access to fully electronic administrative services. Via a central portal, users will get access to key administrative services on the portals of a given member state, even if they are not familiar with the specific administrative structures of that member state. Thus, up-to-date eGovernment will be turned into a living practice. In Germany, the portal network already creates the necessary basis for making available administrative services across all government levels of the federal system. This creates the prerequisites for accessing various administrative services at different levels of government also via the Single Digital Gateway. Obviously, interoperability is the key to success when it comes to designing structures that are successful in the long-term. Interoperability is the only way to implement this approach across all levels of public administration in a way that is commensurate with available resources and future needs.
FST Government: Of all the emerging technologies today with transformative potential (from blockchain and predictive analytics to robotic process automation, for example), which do you feel will have the most dramatic impact – for better or for worse – on the functions of government?
Bürger: The digital transformation of the working environment will have a sustainable impact on the way we work and the forms of work. It will be the central objective of the federal German administration to ensure that new technologies such as artificial intelligence are employed to facilitate and support work.
New technologies change the work content, and processes are being transformed in many areas. In this context, the focus should always be on employees. The progress achieved through digital transformation should be implemented hand in hand with employees and not against them. New technologies are deployed to increase efficiency. Automation can never completely replace employees, and government responsibilities can never be entrusted to machines. It must be transparent to our citizens and businesses that the government does not automate decision-making processes. ⬤