Germany is on the road to digitising municipal services. The city of Bonn, for example, has come a long way already. But things aren’t moving as fast everywhere. And people are making a start elsewhere, too.
(Images: Anne Schönharting)
2030, a Tuesday in summer, Jairat, India. Today Lalita Sharma gets up, like every weekday, at seven o’clock. By the time she’s done in the bathroom, coffee is already brewed in the kitchen; her smartphone set the machine to make it when she woke up. A few minutes later, the air conditioning comes on, controlled automatically by sensors, the same ones that will make sure in an hour’s time that the blinds on the east facing side of the house close silently to keep the sun out. At breakfast, Lalita unpacks the delivery of books that was dropped off for her by a drone at the specially designed post box outside her door the day before. Then she gets going.
Even her route to the office is controlled by sensors and electric motors. All she has to do is get in her little electric car parked in the garage and activate an app on her smartphone. The garage door opens and closes behind her by itself. Automatically, and without making a sound, the vehicle finds its way to the city administration offices and into one of the few parking bays still free in the underground car park.
Three levels up she walks down empty corridors. People only really come here once a month, and even then the rush isn’t too bad, even though Jairat has a population of half a million and only this one administration building.
There really are hardly any reasons for turning up in person any more. Applications for passports and driving licences, registration for schools and nurseries—all of this can only be done online. Water and energy supply is controlled centrally, bins use sensors to say when they need to be emptied, and localisation software then plans the route for the bin lorry.
When Lalita Sharma reaches her desk, she is already logged in to the system. Today, the programmer will carry on working on a new application that automatically recommends a health check to citizens of a certain age and simultaneously suggests possible appointments with a nearby doctor—even booking an appointment if required.
The town of Jairat doesn’t exist, and up until this point a fully automated citizen administration system of this kind is just fiction. Many of the innovations and technologies described do indeed exist, just not all in one place in a single Smart City. They’re spread across the world: one solution here, the other there. India is the first country that wants to systematically merge such ideas. With an investment of 6.5 billion euros they want to develop 100 communities into integrated Smart Cities or even build them completely from scratch. This with the overarching aim of making urban spaces more efficient, healthier, cleaner and more liveable.
Did you know that admin workers spend an average of 72 percent of their working hours using Outlook? What could be more user friendly than connecting an electronic file management system to Microsoft OfficeSuite? “A 365 Maverick” does just this. Bechtle’s development allows employees in public administration services access to their usual user interfaces. Governments, states and communities can easily integrate electronic document management into their existing systems. “A 365” is already in operation at Germany's Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.
Naturally, European cities are also working towards this vision. In Barcelona, for example, the moisture of the soil in the parks is measured by sensors, the data from which is compared with weather forecasts to make sure that green areas are always watered the correct amount—not too little, not too much.
In Santander, which has been turned into a kind of Smart City laboratory with the help of the EU, drivers are alerted to free parking spaces by sensors which can also been installed at road junctions to let you know the levels of air pollution.
Such ideas are in high demand, and this will only increase. According to the UN, in 2050, 80 percent of all people will live in urban centres. In Germany, too, (most) major cities are growing as rural areas shrink.
The goal is to noticeably raise the quality of living for everyone. This is the only way to achieve the necessary acceptance without which digitalisation and e-government cannot succeed. And a quality of life in this context means citizens communicating with the authorities as much as possible over the internet and having to sit around in waiting rooms as little as possible.
There’s a whole group of German cities that are already coming close to making this a reality and provide good digital services for their inhabitants. Bonn, for example: In 2016, the former capital of West Germany placed joint first with Cologne in a comparison of 396 local authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia by the Green Party in the State Parliament—and previously ranked first in McKinsey’s nationwide e-governance ranking.
Residents of Bonn can download a huge amount of forms, order a personalised number plate for their car or a bigger rubbish bin, give their new address to the energy provider and renew their books at the local library all online. Not just this, the Rhineland city also communicates with its residents about decision making processes more than other cities: If someone complains they live on a street with too many potholes, they can follow up online if and when the damage will be repaired. Public accessibility through open data is also exemplary: Bonn openly publishes much of its data online, something city councils previously shied away from. Examples of published documents include development plans, policy documents ahead of political decisions, noise measurements and many more. Beyond the city’s e-governance programme, a regional “digital hub” is being developed with the hope that it will bring together talent, ideas and money in the form of a network of scientists, founders, investors and local businesses.
Even though the initiative has only been around since mid April 2016, several concrete projects already exist: Partners for “Smart Lighting” are working on new business models for the comprehensive roll out of intelligent street lamps; another team founded the “Labor für Sensorik im öffentlichen Raum” (Public Sensor Technology Lab). Everyone is re-inventing the wheel.
As well as Bonn there is a whole host of other German cities that offer their residents contemporary, functional e-governance services. But there is still some catching up to do: In the most recent EU e-governance ranking, the continent’s biggest economy fell behind Italy in 18th place.
Germany is suffering from an implementation deficit in that technical and administrative solutions do exist, but they don’t reach authorities nationwide. The main reason for this is federalism. In this system there is no master plan and no central control; states and communities can govern themselves autonomously to a large extent—or not at all! And the proactive among them want to re-invent the wheel. This means, each federal state has developed its own internet portal, which has meant that the systems are not compatible with each other or with those of the federal government. If you want to move to a new state, you generally have to get used to a new service environment with new forms and new processes.
The system of every state doing its own thing is both impractical and hugely expensive. The National Regulatory Control Council (NKR)—a type of federal de-bureaucratisation body—calculated that three to four billion euros of the 13 billion euros spent on public administration services could be saved by implementing better, more consistent e-governance. According to the NKR, the tax authorities prove how effective digitalisation in this field is, as online communication with companies has saved them around 4 billion euros since 2010.
With workshops and a well-founded market study, Bechtle helped infrastructure and telecommunications provider FALZKOM MANET to design a new, future-oriented cloud offering. The result was a highly secure storage-as-a-service solution implemented as the Rhein Neckar Cloud. It precisely meets the need for the greatest possible security when using cloud solutions. A typically German value that sets it apart from many cloud products from other providers. The Rhein Neckar Cloud is safe storage for all important data, especially for public institutions.
Change first happened where you’d least expect it—in the courts The place where files are the basis of procedures and then, at some point, procedural truths. It is exactly this that will disappear, at least in its physical form.
Courts are leaders in implementing electronic document management in Germany. From 2018, lawyers will have an electronic PO box; from 2022 this is how they will have to communicate with the courts.
If all goes to plan, electronic document management will be mandatory from 2018 in North Rhine-Westphalia. In Bonn’s district court, two chambers already adopted the paperless pilot operation in 2015. Digital court documents are sorted like they would be in a filing cabinet, but searching through them as well as working with them is noticeably more convenient.
Making this process better and more streamlined in the long term, however, means more work in the transitional phase as paper files must be scanned in en masse. Making sure that the systems are compatible with each other from state to state is also a task that shouldn't be taken lightly.
Apart from the courts, all federal authorities and their 200,000 employees should be working with electronic document management by 2020.
Electronic document management is part of the “IT-Konsolidierung Bund (IT Consolidation Association)”, the largest project of its kind in Germany’s administrative history. What spurred it on is the realisation that the state’s IT infrastructure, in its evolved configuration, is no longer able to respond to the current challenges of digitalisation. Far-reaching organisational and technical measures should make the systems future-proof. Amongst other things, there’s a plan for a gradual bundling of the Federal Administration’s IT operations by 2022. This will be coordinated by the Information Technology Association (ITZBund), which was founded in Bonn in 2016. Observers and participants are confident that our public administration will meet consolidation and digitalisation goals in the long term. It’s just a question of when.
As the tasks at hand are hugely complex. The fact that it’s always difficult to bring together large, previously independent self assured bodies compounds the issue. This is why the following principle applies more to this process than ever before: The journey is the goal.
Published on Aug 4, 2017.