Digital transformation requires capacity building

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In Germany, like most industrial nations, there’s a lot of talk about digital transformation. This holds especially true for the public sector, for citizen service delivery.

While in the UK, the Government Digital Services team (GDS) has been doing tremendous pioneering work that’s also echoed in the USDS, and Estonia has gone fully digital a while ago, most countries struggle.

A recent example from Berlin exemplifies this almost perfectly (Morgenpost, in German): In Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, the application for parking permits has been digitized—kind of.

The digital service delivery is worse than before.

According to this article, citizens used to be able to get their parking permits by mail. After the service was put online, they could apply online. So far so good, but the implementation was so lacking that payments couldn’t be processed online. First, government employees manually processed that last bit for every application, but because that was obviously unsustainable the district switched the system. Citizens now apply online, but then to pay have to come in personally to pay on the spot. The payment process was, so the article, forgotten.

The implementation was so bad that putting the service online means that citizens require more efforts to get something simple done. The digital service delivery is worse than before.

This is insanity. On the one hand, process by process is digitized. On the other, it’s done so clumsily that all parties are worse off.

It seems that every step in the process is going wrong.
It seems that every step in the process is going wrong. How can this happen? There’s a simple answer, and a more complex one.

The simple answer is this: The administration doesn’t have the capacity for building digital services yet.

Building digital services requires digital transformation, which requires the institution and all its workflows and org charts to be updated and transformed.

The more complex answer is: Building digital services requires digital transformation, which requires the institution and all its workflows and org charts to be updated and transformed. Otherwise, digitization might bring incremental change at best, or at worst actively create damage.

Germany is a prosperous country with an economy built on high tech. It’s a driving force behind industrial IoT (here summarized under the label “Industry 4.0”). And yet, when it comes to digital delivery of citizen services, the country is woefully behind. This goes all the way from broadband access, where Germany is among the worst in Europe, all the way to how local, state, and federal administrations deliver their services online—or rather don’t, as it were.

Germany is woefully behind in digital services.

In order to even start fixing this malady, we don’t need yet another paper-based workflow to be digitized half-bakedly. Instead, we need a strong mandate from the top, backup up with the necessary budgets, to rethink and truly transform our institutions and administration. Only through true digital transformation can Germany get ready for the 21st century. Until then, citizens and companies alike will have to find workarounds to make things work. We need to aim higher, and we can afford to aim higher.

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