Digital Transformation in Germany
Germany has taken on a number of e-government initiatives in the past, but has ranked low on international benchmarks. Few online services are available for citizens and businesses, and those that exist are often not user-friendly. Consequently, Germany’s digital public services have low usage rates. With the Online Access Act (Onlinezugangsgesetz or OZG), all German public services need to be accessible via a digital channel by the end of 2022. This includes around 575 services, regulated and delivered across all German government levels. So how can the German government digitalise its services in a multi-level governance system?
Digital transformation in a federal system
The IT Planning Council is the policy management body for information technology and e-government. Its objective is to enable binding cooperation in Germany’s multi-level governance system in order to provide user-friendly digital services, as well as the necessary it operations for public administration. In 2018, it established the Federal IT Cooperation Body (FITKO). The IT Planning Council put FITKO and the Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community in charge of the digitalisation programme. Building and delivering many hundreds of digital services in less than five years requires an organisational structure that facilitates multi-level collaboration among different government levels and other stakeholders. With so many dispersed players, efficient knowledge management and division of labour are key success factors.
Shared responsibilities and a users-first approach
To make services truly user-centred, a different approach is necessary that cuts across organisational boundaries and responsibilities. The 575 public services were therefore clustered into 14 thematic areas, such as ‘work and retirement’, ‘health’, ‘family and children’. The steering team of each thematic area is headed by a federal ministry and a federal state who are in charge of digitalising the services within their realm. Behind this is the idea of a division of labour, which ensures that federal states and their municipalities can benefit from each other’s efforts. A federal state active in 1 or 2 thematic areas can re-use digital services developed in other thematic areas. The division of labour and encompassing knowledge sharing of artefacts, templates and code on a central information platform will avoid duplication and ensure more standardisation.
One of the main pillars of the new law is the focus on users. Within the thematic areas, the administrative services were analysed from the lens of life and business events. This revealed the duplication within applications for a number of services within one thematic area. For example, parents in Germany usually have to apply for a number of services at different government organisations when their child is born, e.g. for the birth announcement, to receive child allowance and for parental benefit. They have to provide the same information over and over again. An analysis of the end-to-end user journey across different services around the same life events visualises and uncovers the pain points and frictions in the current processes and offers potential entry points for digital solutions. Applying life circumstances as lenses can help break up silos because services are analysed from a user’s perspective, not just one of administrative responsibilities.
During the planning phase, the services in one thematic area were prioritised according to their digitalisation potential. The teams developed concepts of how to best digitalise the service and outlined possible routes for implementation. The two highest prioritised services were worked on in an in-depth agile design sprint format to come up with a service vision and an interactive prototype to visualise it.
This design sprint format, or so-called digitalisation lab, brings together an interdisciplinary team of public servants, UX designers, it and legal experts to co-create the service vision. Public servants take on the role of product owners which creates ownership. After initial user and expert research and synthesis, the team goes through design sprint workshops to develop and sketch ideas for a digital service. These sketches are refined in additional design and prototyping sprints, and iteratively tested with users and reviewed with experts. The feedback from public servants has been positive and emphasizes that collaboration in the digitalisation labs works differently. Some have worked together on digitalisation projects for many years and appreciate how this different approach, centred around the users’ perspective and using visualisation, has brought a fresh lens and facilitated the process.
Challenges for building and delivering services in a federal system
The Online Access Act has created momentum for the digitalisation of public services in Germany. User-centred design provides an answer of how to create user-friendly services. The service visions developed in the digitalisation labs need to be further refined, handed over to development teams and implemented in existing, heterogeneous IT infrastructures. One of the challenges of the digitalisation programme is the transition from digital ideas into functionable services available on a large scale. The collaboration among policymakers and service-delivery agencies during the concept phase therefore has to continue and be adapted to the implementation phase. The strategy of the digitalisation programme is a division of labour in the efforts of developing online services, and sharing knowledge of existing online services to avoid duplication and re-use technical solutions elsewhere. As Germany is ramping up its efforts, it can also benefit from international best practices. This covers existing resources such as internationally adapted service standards and accountability structures, design systems including design principles and patterns, as well as blueprints for good online services. The international design in government community of practitioners shows how beneficial collaboration is in fast-tracking national developments.
Björn Bünzow is Head of Division at the German Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community. He is responsible for the implementation of the Online Access Act.
Dr Katrin Dribbisch works as a Senior Lead Consultant at ]init[AG on public sector innovation. She completed her PhD on embedding design thinking in public administrations.