Beyond the box thinking: How the state can become more digital


Cumbersome corona tracking, little networking, jumble of forms – the state of digitization at the authorities in Germany has been criticized. The German state apparently lags far behind other countries and the economy. Official government advisors ruled on behalf of Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) in April that the weaknesses had “massively hindered” an effective political response to the pandemic.

The civil servants’ association dbb is now putting pressure on it. Even the last one should have seen in the Corona crisis: “We need a state that is armed against global crises that impact the people in Germany with full force,” said dbb boss Ulrich Silberbach of the German press agency.

There are very specific weak points, some improvements are on the way – but processes that have been well established for a long time often seem like sand in the gears. FDP parliamentary group vice-president Frank Sitta called on Sunday for “a digital offensive for the state”. Silberbach said that the confusion of competencies between the federal, state and various authorities is hindering digitization. The dbb wants to put pressure on this Monday with an online event.

According to dbb, the time of contact tracing by fax seems to be passing by in the health authorities – because of a software called Sormas. At the beginning of February 151 of the 376 health authorities had used the Corona software, with which contacts of people infected with corona should be traced more efficiently. According to the Ministry of Health, the responsibility for equipping the health offices lies with the federal states and offices themselves. Silberbach said that the dbb had spoken to employees of health offices to find out how Sormas works in practice.

“The result is sobering.” If an employee creates a digital data file, he has to enter the name of an infected person in 16 different places. “That has nothing to do with smart digitization.”

Data protection is important, said Silberbach. “But we are currently exaggerating the crucial data in the fight against the coronavirus in Germany,” he said. The health risks are greater than the risks of an automatic transfer of central information: Has someone tested positive? Where has he or she been since then?

“Millions of people allow the Google services to extract this data around the clock, for example when determining their location.” But there is no localization of the users with the Corona warning app. “If people don’t type in when they test positive, nothing is more useful than a paperweight.”

Silberbach pointed out another “very big weak point” for citizens and the administration. “There is no standardized way for the different authorities to network quickly and to exchange the necessary master data, for example when someone applies for parental allowance or other benefits,” he said. “For this it would be necessary to assign the citizens an ID code, add this to the data records for all authorities and then allow the various departments to use this data in previously defined and transparently traceable cases.”

That should now also happen with the tax identification number. The Federal Council passed a corresponding law at the beginning of March. Silberbach said, however, that it was coming very late.

“In addition, in Germany we usually only use digital tools after they have been 110 percent checked,” Silberbach stated. “In the meantime, requests come from all sorts of things that the instrument must or must not be able to do.” Until it really starts, be it technically outdated or so overloaded that it doesn’t work properly at all. “Estonia and Denmark, on the other hand, start when the IT project is 60 to 70 percent complete, and the rest is learning by doing.”

“The digital identity card is a huge blow,” said Silberbach. Many still need a card reader to use it digitally. Nobody walks around with a device like this these days. Not all smartphones work without it. According to a study from October, ten years after its introduction, the ePerso does not play a role in most everyday life: According to the survey, six percent have already used the online ID function.