Digital government: Are citizens and civil servants ready?
The digitalization of Germany’s public administration is a done deal thanks to the Online Access Act (OZG, Onlinezugangsgesetz). But how ready are civil servants and citizens for the digital future? Looking at both sides, we can clearly see who already has the necessary skills and where there is still a need to catch up.
Applying for a new ID card at the click of a mouse, re-registering a car in a few minutes using a smartphone or registering for dog tax on a tablet from home – until the end of 2022, all of these government services are to be available online in Germany. That is what is required under the Online Access Act. For citizens, the advantages are obvious: no more annoying trip to the citizens’ registration office and long waits for appointments. Staff at public authorities also benefit from a reduced workload and less red tape.
But how prepared are both citizens and staff for the digital transition? Do citizens even have the skills needed to use digital government services? And are staff at public authorities trained well enough in the use of new tools and software to ensure that the Online Access Act can be successfully implemented?
A large-scale study by Initiative D21 („Digital Skills Gap“, D21-Digital-Index 2020/2021), Germany’s largest non-profit network for the digital society, made up of stakeholders from business, politics, science and civil society, recently revealed just how good the digital skills of Germans are. In the study entitled the initiative takes a close look at the digital skills of the population – also with regard to the use of digital government services. The findings showed that although the majority of citizens have a high level of application skills and use digital applications and devices with confidence, only a few understand the underlying mechanisms and contexts. Thomas Langkabel is National Technology Officer at Microsoft Germany and Vice President of Initiative D21. He believes that “The German population itself is probably better prepared for digital government than the public administration is for what citizens expect of it.”
The results of the Digital Skills Gap study prove this: A large part of the population now shows a fundamental willingness to use digital applications in the public administration sector. This is especially the case if citizens can see a real benefit when they use digital government services. Advantages, such as saving time, less work or intuitive usability, are, according to Mr Langkabel, the drivers that can make online government successful.
Employees as drivers of administrative digitalization
But it is also clear that the digital transformation of our public administration will only succeed if staff at public authorities and government offices also support this change. They need to be further educated and trained in the use of new tools. And they need to understand the benefits of new digital applications. This is precisely what is still lacking in many areas. On the one hand, the federal structure of the public administration has resulted in a myriad of different systems and programs. On the other hand, many employees simply lack the skills needed to use the technology. In order to change this, the Federal Government Commissioner for Information Technology and State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community, Dr. Markus Richter, presented a clear roadmap for accelerating the digitalization of the public administration in May 2020. In this nine-point plan, Dr. Richter named important cornerstones that should advance the digital transformation of Germany.
A full five of the nine focal points relate to the area of digital government. According to Dr. Richter, for instance, agile and innovative ways of working must be established, internal administrative processes digitized or training in digital skills expanded for public authority employees. Dr. Richter also emphasized this recently in an interview with Bundesdruckerei.
In reality, however, the digital transformation of public authorities frequently fails due of the attitude of those involved. An open error culture has simply never been established in many administrative institutions, so the fear of ‘wrong’ is great,” says Dr. Richter: “Paradoxically, the fear of being criticized makes it particularly difficult to say goodbye to concepts that do not work – even when a better solution has already been around for some time. I want to help counter this fear.” In an effort to achieve this, the Federal Government’s Chief Information Officer has, for instance, set up digitalization labs where administrative staff can try their hand.
Users want things simple yet secure
Where citizens are concerned, it is often other factors that could hinder the use of digital government services. The initial user euphoria is frequently followed by disappointment due to excessive complexity, ‘administrative language’ that is hard to understand or a lack of usability of the online administrative services, says Thomas Langkabel. “The simplicity that users are now familiar when they identify themselves using a smartphone or wallet is also what users expect when dealing with the public administration. Almost every second person in our eGovernment MONITOR 2021 study showed an interest in storing ID card data on their smartphone and among under-30s the figure even rose to as high as 62 percent. This shows that reservations decline when you get to know something.”
When it comes to strengthening digital skills, Mr Langkabel believes that the government must also be held accountable. Digital topics must be better anchored in school classrooms as well as in training and further education. It is not about learning programming languages, but about building up a basic understanding of contexts, concepts, responsibilities, potentials and risks that result from digitalization for all areas of life and for all professions. What’s more, user age is not all that relevant when it comes to digital skills, Mr Langkabel explains. It is not true that all so-called digital natives are prepared for digitalization and that the older generation is clueless and overwhelmed. Often, the issue of digital skills is rather linked to the general level of education and social background. It is true, however, that especially for older people going in person to a public authority, the issue of trust is also important. In order to introduce even more people to digital government services, it is therefore important to reduce security concerns and strengthen the understanding of secure identities.
There is also another point on which Thomas Langkabel and Dr. Markus Richter agree: Meaningful digital government services focus on citizens and their needs. To achieve this, those in charge must see their services as a product – including suitable marketing concepts and subsequent measurement of success, says Thomas Langkabel: “The potential is there, the tools are there. What we now need is a change in mindset.”