1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

COVID exposes Germany's digital deficit

May 14, 2021

Whether with coronavirus figures filed by fax, or online forms for financial aid which then need to be printed out and signed, the pandemic has shown German government bodies lag behind European neighbors going digital.

A 3.5 inch floppy disk with a German government logo and a label captioned "Digitalization strategy of the Federal Government of Germany" in German.
COVID has forced the German government to upgrade its systems and rethink shortcomings, but progress is still slowImage: Torsten Sukrow/SULUPRESS.DE/picture alliance

A year of lockdowns and working from home has thrust a spotlight on the German government's technical shortcomings. Watching the 16 states sharing their coronavirus data by fax until the arrival of SORMAS (Surveillance Outbreak Response Management and Analysis System) software became perhaps the most obvious but by no means the sole example of this.

The president of the German federation of civil servants (the DBB), Ulrich Silberbach, lamented at a recent event that the country remained a "sleeping beauty" when it came to digitization, with government reports "putting a finger in the same wound over and over again."

"We would have liked to have landed on the moon in this digital age, but we're still stuck in the basement. This is important to me because our colleagues currently have the impression that they are being portrayed as the guilty ones in public discourse," Silberbach said. "And, of course, we vehemently reject that. The problem doesn't lie with our colleagues, but rather it's because we've been cutting the public sector to the bone for years."

Staff working the phones at Health Ministry buildings in Mitte in Berlin
New tracking software has reduced some of the paperwork involved in tracking COVID cases, but most staff are still in officeImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

As coronavirus restrictions called for employers to enable working from home, the public sector found itself wanting in precisely that regard. Earlier this year, the city state of Berlin could only allow around 12% of its employees remote VPN access to its systems at any one time.

Germany lags behind in EU's DESI index

The EU's annual Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) provides a regular reminder of German shortcomings.

Overall, the wealthiest and largest country in the bloc consistently delivers only average performances. But in the "digital public services" segment specifically, Germany languished in 21st place out of 28 countries (the post-Brexit UK is still counted for now) in 2020's index, only ahead of the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece and Romania. That's hardly the sort of company Germany is accustomed to keeping in EU league tables.

COVID is deepening digital divide

Michael Pfefferle works at Bitkom, a digital association in Germany representing 2,700 companies. He specializes in bringing local, municipal governments online.

"What's special about the coronavirus pandemic is that it has shone a spotlight on all these problems which have been well-known to everybody in politics and in public services for more than 10 years," Pfefferle told DW. "That has been the decisive point in Germany: We know about the problem, but nothing happens."

What the pandemic has also shown, according to Pfefferle, is that rapid progress is possible when the will and the necessity are there. Berlin's government, like so many major employers, has been rushing to buy laptops and set up VPN tunnels for its staff in 2021.

'Not a problem that we could not solve'

Pfefferle described Germany's progress on digitization as being "well short of its own potential." Bitkom recently surveyed mayors and municipal government leaders in Germany, receiving 640 responses. The three core complaints, he said, were almost universal: a lack of finances, a lack of expertise and specialist personnel, and a lack of guidance and standards from the federal government.

"It's not like this is a problem we could not solve. We aren't lacking the right technology in Germany, it exists," he said. "Only 5% of the mayors reported back that suitable digital products were not available."

Wanted in Germany: Digital specialists

Big cities at an advantage in recruitment shortfall

Technology might not be lacking, but know-how often is. Silberbach of the civil servants' trade union said that of 330,000 vacancies currently in Germany's civil service, 46,000 of the empty positions are earmarked for IT experts.

According to Silberbach, the recruitment issues are twofold: it can be difficult to offer competitive salaries to often younger specialists within an often rigid pay structure, but perhaps more importantly, the German public sector struggles to offer them the sort of IT infrastructure and capabilities that would attract them. In one of the fastest-moving sectors of them all, working with outdated equipment and capabilities does not look great on an IT specialist's CV.

The problem's even more pronounced in smaller municipalities with smaller budgets, and perhaps as few as 30 or 40 employees. Bitkom's Pfefferle said that larger cities like Cologne, Munich or Hamburg are able to pour resources into "Smart City" digitization projects, to hire and attract the specialist personnel they need.

"But Germany only has 81 large cities with populations of more than 100,000. And the big problem that's developing right now in Germany is that smaller towns really don't have the chance to acquire this know-how," Pfefferle said. They lack both the money to pay them and the technical infrastructure to attract them.

A person uses a digital ID card with a card reader
Germany has had digital ID cards for around a decade, but hardly anybody uses themImage: Ole Spata/dpa/picture alliance

'Online access law' vs. a paper-based society

Even before the pandemic, the grand coalition government had implemented a new plan designed to drag the public sector into the 21st century a couple of decades late.

The so-called online access law seeks to digitize more than 500 public services by 2022. Pfefferle said he's not hugely optimistic that the government will meet the target it has set itself. With just a few months left, he describes the project as "still too much in the planning and conception phase."

However, he also admitted that some of the problems run deeper than the government itself. For one of the most modern and wealthiest economies in Europe, Germany is still something of a fossil when it comes to giving up its old habits.

Will COVID-19 kill cash?

Even the pandemic has done little, for example, to kill the cash culture that still pervades German retail. The most recent figures from 2017 showed that 77% of all transactions at the point of sale in Germany were cash payments. That's not a leading figure in the EU, but it stands in stark contrast to the neighboring Netherlands — one of the high flyers on the annual DESI index. There, just 34% of point-of-sale transactions used physical currency.

And a similar problem pervades the public sector. Many forms and applications still require a written signature, and digital ID cards introduced in theory more than a decade ago are hardly ever used, meaning that the last step of even the most computerized program typically involves printing out a copy of the form, signing it, and taking it to the local authorities. (Alternatively, if you have some rather outmoded tech equipment at home, you might be able to scan the signed paper copy back into your computer and email it as a PDF instead.) It was the same story for the largely online applications for financial aid from the government during the pandemic.

"This love of paper and of signatures is still very much anchored in Germany's administrations," said Pfefferle. "The cooperation between health authorities in particular but also more generally between the states and the federal government has shown itself to be overly complex. These complex structures and this clinging to paper has revealed itself as a problem in this pandemic."

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam