Digital Transformation, German Government Edition

Note: This expands on a longer Twitter thread of mine.

It’s utterly fascinating to hear German politics discover digital transformation as a key priority now. For literally 2 decades, every expert has preached this – among other things to be better prepared for what we’re seeing now.

Yet, except for industry plays (“Industry 4.0”) digital services and digital readiness were more or less an afterthought — lip service more than action.

I’d argue that Germany is not a few years behind, but maybe 10-15 years. (It’s unevenly distributed; in some areas Germany is more, in others less behind.) That’s time missing not just for the implementation of IT projects or processes. It’s time missing for things like cultural change, strategic adaption, responsibilities and roles. Growing these things takes time — a lot of time.

So when in 2021, some parties are (re)discovering the decade-old idea of a “digital ministry” it seems quaint at best, willfully negligent at worst.

The UK’s AlphaGov initiative launched in 2011 (Wikipedia). To me, this stands out as a good milestone and a symptom of a certain understanding of what it takes, and a governmental structure that allows for such a project to already be working and in place.

10 years after that, Germany still isn’t even at the point where such an initiative could be credibly launched today.

(Again, exceptions apply: Berlin’s CityLAB is a promising start.)

That missed opportunity — that oversight, really — isn’t just embarrassing, although it clearly is embarrassing, too. It hurts everybody now during the pandemic. Instead of alleviating pressures through digital means, the lack of the government’s digital readiness amplifies the pain points.

To give some examples: Consider the corona warn app’s problems, the issues with something so basic as gathering infection data from health departments, complications with access to government financial aid (both with navigating the information and with the payouts), administration staff unable to work remotely. Just to name a few!

These examples aren’t the issue, they are manifestations of huge issues with the underlying digital readiness — or rather, lack of readiness. They’re the bloom on the mold: The obvious signs of a much larger problem.

And these problems aren’t isolated. They are systemic, connected. They compound.

If Germany’s governments had even somewhat credible digital capacities, it would have been possible to spin up new initiatives in response to the coronavirus crisis quickly. It would have been possible to react in real time, to adapt tactics as the strategy evolved. That’s exactly the point of readiness and infrastructure: To have a reliable foundation to work with.

As it stands, we’ve lost a decade or two to get ready, and we’ve been paying the price this year. What’s more, there’s still no larger vision in place, let alone a strategy. It’s still piecemeal, patchwork, small-small. So we’ll keep paying a price: Directly, in amplified, non-relieved problems; in higher transaction costs; and in opportunity cost.

Germany had been coasting on a reputation (ill-conceived to begin with, maybe?) of efficiency and innovation. The last few years, this reputation has been largely lost. The cracks have become too prominent to overlook, from zombie airports to the slow transition away from fossil-powered cars to the lack of digital readiness.

In many ways, this time was wasted and we won’t get it back. But we have to get on with it anyway, because it’s imperative if we’re to be ready for future calamities, and to lower the transaction costs for basic government services. Maybe being unburdened from a reputation can be helpful. Maybe this allows the government to switch to a humble beginner’s mindset.

So let’s get to it, shall we?