While many of my posts concern the United States – where most of the IT-drive government innovation seems to be happening – and I do occasionally cover other countries, I have never commented about what is going on in the largest EU nation and one of the largest economies in the world, i.e. Germany.
I have to confess that the language barrier makes things a bit more difficult that usual. I can speak English and French, and understand a fair amount of Spanish, but when it comes to German, I am truly hopeless, and this in spite of having married a woman who graduated in German literature and masters German pretty well. On the other hand, the German government has always been less concerned with communication than with actual planning, so there is very limited amount of information available in English.
This being said, there are quite a few activities going on in Germany as well. There have been govcamps and barcamps , and there is an on-going consultation to engage people in the development of the e-government strategy for the next five years.
The on-line consultation is open to anybody, and gives 50 points to be apportioned among 22 priority topics grouped into 7 different areas. Contributors can assign to each topic a maximum of 9 points.
Here are the topics (I apologize for the poor translation, for which I have used automatic tools).
The first four areas address “quality”
1. Secure access
- Multiple, equal opportunity channels
2. Usage comfort
- Clarity of content
- One-Stop Shop
- Faster user feedback:
- User customization
3. Privacy and Trust Building
- Identity and security standards
- Data Transparency
4. Consultation and participation
- Uniform interaction formats
- Increased interactivity:
- Feedback to users about their input
The last three areas address “efficiency”.
5. Harmonized systems
- Synergies across agencies and tiers
- Service compatibility and interoperability
- International Compatibility
- Clear governance
- Centralization of IT skills
- Development of employee competencies
7. Framework conditions
- Legal framework
- Political drive
- Funding Schemes
- Quality Assurance and Measurement
This is clearly a simplified and quite superficial translation, and you can get more details following the link to the survey.
At first glance the topics above cover pretty much what is important in e-government. Better, what has always been important. And this is where – in my opinion – this consultation falls a bit short of (my) expectations. After a decade of e-government activities, after two programs (one addressing the federal government and one the integration across government tiers), I would expect questions to be rooted into what Germany has already achieved, gathering input on more specific topics than those above. Most of the above have been tackled in previous editions of the German e-government programs (and – for what is worth – in several EU countries).
On the other hand, it is very possible that the actual user feedback will help reveal differences. I do not know whether and how input from government agencies, third parties, private citizens will be weighed, but it is likely to provide strategic planners with diverse viewpoints to critically review what they have been doing so far.
My sense is that German government people tend to overplan things. Now, this is probably a cultural trait and I’m sure many people may object to an Italian like me making any critical observation about planning (although I have been working mostly outside Italy throughout my career).
A good example is the so-called European Service Directive, a piece of European legislation that aims at creating a level playing field for businesses that want to operate across national boundaries. Among the many provisions EU member state governments need to comply with by December 31st 2009, there is the obligation to provide electronic points of single contact to foreign businesses to help them through the entire process of establishing a company or a subsidiary in a different country.
This does not mean a single point of contact (such as a single portal) but multiple points, each of which should be able to lead through the entire process. Now, while most EU countries have taken this obligation very lightly – and our suspicion is that they will do as little as possible to comply with the December 31st deadline – German government departments at all levels (federal, state and local) have been studying and piloting this very thoroughly for a long time. A good example is a white paper published over 18 months ago by the Fraunhofer Institute, which goes in excruciating details into the architectural requirements to support the Service Directive.
What other countries, such as the US or Australia, are showing is that the next phase of e-government (or – for lack of a better term – government 2.0) requires a different approach, based on pilots, experiments, risk taking, challenging assumptions, or the “Prove Me Wrong” attitude (try first and let critics with the burden of proving you wrong). Of course this more pioneering attitude will soon be blended with more traditional risk mitigation attitudes (see the recent US “Guidelines for Secure Use of Social Media by Federal Departments and Agencies”), but the best approach seems to be to start from the bottom up, without a rigorous three or five year plan, rather than proceeding in a strictly hierarchical way.
Let’s hope the current consultation brings that realization to German government officials.