This piece was written by Nils Hoffmann, who manages GovLab Arnsberg, the innovation lab of the regional Government of Arnsberg (North Rhine-Westphalia). For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.
German engineering is appreciated all around the world for its economic strength. It is based on high quality products, built in mid-sized companies, often run by families for generations. Those companies are highly innovative, and most of the time they look back on a history full of new ideas and game changing technologies. We Germans see ourselves as a nation of innovators, as long as we look at our economy and engineers.
Unfortunately, this image turns into the opposite for the public sector. German administrations from federal level over states to local authority districts rely heavily on the status quo. Citizens are often required to send signed paperwork to authorities or to have a personal appointment with public servants to deal with everyday problems like permissions.
The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) for 2018 is an alarming signal for Germany — especially when you look closer at e-government and Digital Public Services. In the international community of public innovators, Germany is practically non-existent.
Taking a closer look, there are several layers making German administrations so resistant to change and innovation.
Historical, structural and cultural barriers to German public innovation
From a historical point of view, Germany is in some way the homeland of bureaucracy. When you strive through German schools, town halls and ministries, there will be at least one statue or room named after one man: Baron vom Stein. A leading head of the Prussian Reforms, after more than 200 years his work still shines through German administration and is engraved in its history.
Hierarchic structures and disciplined work within fixed and monolithic rules have been around since then. From communication between different public organisations to the career-system of public servants, everything is built for a long-term, non-agile style of work.
Everything is built for a long-term, non-agile style of work
Don’t get me wrong. This stability in administration was a factor of success for a long period of time. But society has moved on, and innovation and change on a regular base are more important than ever.
The legacy of Baron vom Stein is part of the foundation of modern Germany. From a structural point of view, the decentralised federal system makes it hard to establish change. Especially in tech, where the interests of the different federal levels are often not in line with each other. It is a real challenge to establish a framework which could provide the platform for our administrations to make innovation happen.
On top of that, the public sector in Germany heavily relies on people with law degrees as managers and a workforce built with vocational education and training in public services. Unfortunately, skills like project- or data-management tend to be unrepresented in those trainings and courses of study. Most public servants have never heard of — or used — methods like design thinking, Scrum or Kanban in their everyday work. Those methods have been successfully used by other organisations for years. Instead, loads of paper-files are still the reality in many ministry offices.
The cultural side is by far the one that concerns me the most in my everyday work. Instead of asking “Why not?”, public servants tend to asks “Why?” when confronted with new ideas, processes and products. Responsibilities are strictly fixed for every public servant, and that’s all many of them care for. Thinking outside the box, getting into new tech and new topics is not a thing for most of them.
Germans are often sceptical when it comes to data and the use of new, digital technologies. Even high school students — according to research of the Bertelsmann foundation a devastating 23% is sceptical about use of the internet. I fear that those 23% are the public servants of tomorrow, matching the culture in the German public sector. With our strong economy and a general “war for talent”, the German public sector is not doing well in attracting tech-talent.
But there is hope rising in public sector offices
But not all is lost. There is a small but very dynamic community of public servants, start-ups, scientists and politicians bringing new innovative ideas into the public sector. People who start asking “Why not?” rather than “Why”. Exceptional talents confronting old structures with a new style of work and decision-making. People who think in a user-centric way.
Projects like the “Verschwörhaus” in the city of Ulm — a place that creates great ideas for the citizens and the administration — try to experiment with new ways to shape the society of the future.
Germany is a “late mover” when it comes to innovation in the public sector
Scientists like Prof. Dr. Ines Mergel try to help the public sector with new ways of thinking and are forming a generation of students with an open mindset and a creative approach to administration.
Last year’s Creative Bureaucracy Festival in Berlin created a mentionable impact on strengthening the community of innovators.
While other countries like Canada are experienced in building and running innovation labs, the GovLab Arnsberg was founded as the first lab in the German public sector in May 2018, followed by the Policy Lab Digital Working Society of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in October 2018.
Germany is a “late mover” when it comes to innovation in the public sector, but I am glad to be part of the rising community that shapes the sector’s future. Networks like Apolitical help us to set up projects quickly and learn from experienced public servants from all around the world.
I am confident that the developing community in public sector innovation will have a great impact on everyday work and the development of the public sector in general on all federal levels. — Nils Hoffmann
(Picture credit: Unsplash)