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Germany’s e-government agency must surpass its name to drive real change

by Arthur Mickoleit  |  April 4, 2018  |  Submit a Comment

The #GroKo (Germany’s new governing coalition) is on and it has big ambitions for digital government! Ambition is needed because Germany has been slow in adapting digital transformation to create better government services. The government knows that it has yet to enter the “digital champions league”.

Creation of an “e-government agency” is planned to that purpose. While it sounds like a laudable objective, the chosen agency title suggests a high risk falling back to old ways of working. Because “e-government” around the world has too often meant doing what government used to do, just electronically. Which is very different from using digital change to actually transform the experience of citizens when they have to interact with public authorities.

What kind of agency could take Germany from “e-government” to better and digital government? Some international practices provide inspiration:

Strong and continuous political support is critical.

A top political figure, a “political animal” if you will, has to back the agency’s work but not lead it (see next point about leadership). In the UK, Francis Maude was Minister of Cabinet from 2010 to 2015 and the political sponsor of Government Digital Services (GDS), founded in 2011. His capacity for navigating politics was critical so that GDS could deliver on the mandate: “revolution, not evolution of digital services”. In Germany the political choice has been been made, Dorothee Bär’s political skills will be a critical success factor.

Executive leadership needs a license to disrupt.

As opposed to the political leader, the agency’s executive leadership (eg. Chief Digital Officer) better come from outside the bureaucracy. An outsider with vision, charisma and digital transformation experience will be better placed to shake things up in Germany’s generally conservative administration setting (relying, however, on the political support mentioned above). The first executive leaders of UK GDS, France’s Etalab and Italy’s TeamDigitale, respectively, all joined government from a (digital) business: The Guardian, DailyMotion (France’s answer to YouTube), and Amazon.

…and the right people to do so.

The right people in a digital change agency will first be passionate about projects, not life-long civil servant status. Motivation will of course come through pay, but also via the prospect to actually contribute to change. There is no standard profile for digital change agents but it is sure that lawyers and developers alone will not make the cut. Look for example at how the relatively new Canadian Digital Service (CDS) is recruiting along five streams: Communications and Engagement, Data, Design, Development & Product Management. Or Australia’s guidance for digital service delivery teams where user researchers, performance analysts and subject-matter experts work alongside service managers, designers and software engineers.

Keep in mind that human resources don’t have to be in-house only, partners can chip in too (see my point later on platforms and partnerships).

Take your users, i.e. citizens, seriously. From the start!

User adoption is a critical factor to be measured against; and it is often neglected.

This image posted by UK GDS in 2012 really says it all: User adoption is a critical factor to be measured against; and it is often neglected.

Germany, like others, has some unfortunate experience with focus on technology while neglecting user needs and preferences. The national electronic ID and digital signature are excellent pieces of technology and infrastructure. But there has been a lack of connected services and the physical card + reader combo is too inconvenient for people to use. The result is no surprise: most people don’t use it.

Here is how the German agency can try to add real value to the intended users:

  • Ask users – evident, it seems, but so often neglected: which situations in citizens’ lives require the most inconvenient or annoying interactions with the public authorities? For example moving home, giving birth to a child, starting a business, losing a family member. Combine this with other data, e.g. about the relative frequency of these “life events”, and you can prioritise and measure the impact of transformation efforts the way the French government does.
  • Be visual and use plain language to describe citizen journeys through the bureaucracy. And then use visuals and plain language again to explain how you want to transform that citizen experience, e.g. the way Code for America does with local authorities.
  • Don’t develop for users, develop with them. That really means saying goodbye to a linear “waterfall” logic where users test a new service late in the development process. Instead, the administration should develop and early on test prototypes, alpha and beta versions with the intended users – including the wide public. There is no need to shy away from the “beta” culture. To the contrary, some government agencies are happy to make this part of their name: the French digital service team or the digital team of Australia’s Tax Office.

Build partnerships and platforms

“If you want to go quick – go alone; if you want to go far – go with others.” – I was told this proverb originated in Africa. It can relate to life in general, but it definitely applies to digital transformation too.

Organizational culture is a big obstacle for digital transformation and a particular challenge in Germany where competencies for the delivery of many public services are shared between the federal, regional and municipal layers of the state. The digital agency will have to look for partners that can work together on “quick wins” so that hesitant institutions see the value of joining forces instead of opposing or ignoring.

Some “quick wins” by UK GDS were iterative re-design of the government web presence and the registration to vote. In France, an early transformation case was the painful process of declaring death of a relative. Ideas for good cases in Germany? How about removing the need to provide printed birth certificates, simplifying business creation, pre-filling application forms for child care benefits (or even their automatic allocation) to name just a few.

Partnerships with non-government actors can help to fill gaps in budget and human resources. See for example the way that the US government has teamed up with the non-profit Code for America to let professionals work on public sector projects for limited periods of time, up to a year. The German agency should look for such synergies with actors like Initiative D21, OKFN or Code for Germany.

Partnerships can be enriched through government-sponsored platforms and APIs. Just look at how the French government tries new ways to regulate the public use of drones (see image), to harmonize the register of national addresses and geo-locations, to better match job seekers and employers.

French government uses platforms and APIs to better regulate the public use of drones.

To re-cap

It is important the German agency does not try to re-invent the wheel entirely, but take what worked in other countries, mix and try to match it to the German context. The essence is not to do what other countries did, but take a good look at how they did it.

The most important thing though is to remember that digital transformation is not about making government electronic, it is about making it better! Whether the citizen experience is electronic is really secondary to whether it is better.

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Tags: digvw  egov  germany  gov20  

Arthur Mickoleit
Principal Research Analyst
1 year at Gartner
13 years Industry

Arthur Mickoleit is a Principal Research analyst in Gartner's CIO Research and Advisory group. Mr. Mickoleit provides thought leadership on digital government, public-sector IT, public service delivery and citizen engagement. Read Full Bio

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