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Germans' trust in state institutions hits new low

August 18, 2023

Faith in Germany's state institutions has hit a low point, according to a major survey. Everyone from the average voter to the chancellor is blaming bureaucracy.

People waiting for their turn in the citizens' office
Germans are frustrated by stifling bureaucracy and long paper trailsImage: BriganiArt/Sari/IMAGO

If you think Germany is efficient and decisive, you probably don't live here. From unreliable passenger rail to long waits for public services, too few appointment slots to see doctors and not enough room in preschools, German institutions seem increasingly unable to meet the everyday needs of the population they serve. 

That hasn't gone unnoticed by the general public. Just 27% of people in Germany have the sense the state is able to fulfill its responsibilities. That is the overall result of a new survey by the German Civil Service Federation (dbb), released this week. The figure is a new low. 

The dbb conducts the survey annually. While public administration saw a boost in confidence during the pandemic years 2020 and 2021 — with 56% and 45% of respondents, respectively, expressing confidence in the state's functions — the latest figures are seven percentage points lower than in 2019, the final year before the pandemic. 

Germans are looking for leadership 

The results are "alarming," Ulrich Silberbach, the dbb chairperson, told reporters on August 15. 

"What the public wants — and, for that matter, civil servants, too — is very simple: The state should fulfill its tasks and be there for people," he said. "They don't want a different state but an efficient one." 

Increased doubt in the system reflects the changing times. It isn't only due to the end of the pandemic, during which rules and services strongly intervened in people's everyday lives, but also a new political environment. 

Angela Merkel, whose long-serving chancellorship ended in late 2021, was widely respected and enjoyed a period of political consensus. When COVID-19 struck Germany, the normally aloof leader gave more interviews and public remarks. Support for her center-right party and trust in government functions skyrocketed, even amid pandemic-skeptic protests. 

Olaf Scholz during his annual 'summer interview'
Chancellor Olaf Scholz returned from his summer vacation with a message of optimismImage: Thomas Kierok/ZDF/dpa/picture alliance

Merkel's successor, Olaf Scholz, has been criticized for addressing the public too little. He isn't seen putting a stop to policy disagreements among his center-left coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), which at least appear to be mired in continuous internal squabbling.

"We are living in a time in which the public needs orientation and leadership," said Silberbach. "We have someone in the chancellery who once said, 'Those who ask leadership from me, get it.' But the public does not seem to have registered that."

Public dissatisfaction leads to increased support for far right

Scholz's approval rating is around 43% — a new low — according to the Politbarometer, a regular poll by public broadcaster ZDF, on August 18.

The dbb survey results align with broader trends in public perspectives. The monthly Deutschlandtrend, by pollster infratest dimap, has tracked steadily increasing divisions and dissatisfaction in German society. One consequence has been surging support for the far-right populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Silberbach expressed concern about the apparent rise in the "societal stress level," especially between former West and East Germany. There is a correlation between a particularly strong affinity for the AfD in the east, the former GDR, and more widespread doubts about the state's ability to provide for its citizens.

German far-right AfD party surges in opinion polls

Public attitudes are shaped not only by demonstrable events but also by media representation and political rhetoric. At the federal level, the opposition has effectively portrayed the government as being too distracted with internal squabbling and unable to lead. Whether on combating greenhouse gas emissions or reforming social benefits, several policy goals have either failed to make it into law or required significant amendments to pass. 

This week, a "growth opportunity" bill put forward by the FDP stalled when the family minister, the Greens' Lisa Paus, criticized it for putting tax breaks for companies ahead of funding for child welfare. 

Scholz aims to cut red tape, 'easing burden on companies'

It is one of several new bills or ministry regulations that many in the coalition are touting as the answer to Germany's "jungle of bureaucracy," as Economy Minister Robert Habeck called it in a recent interview with the Rheinische Post, a regional newspaper. 

Despite the latest snag, Scholz told attendees at a business event on Wednesday that his Cabinet will sign off on the "growth opportunity" bill before the end of the month. 

"With it, we are breaking down bureaucracy and promoting investment, especially in research and development and climate-friendly production," he said.  

In a nod to increasing nervousness about the state of the German economy, Scholz added: "Above all, however, we are easing the burden on companies across the board." 

Is bureaucracy stalling the energy transition?

The civil service and elected government are two sides of the same bureaucratic coin, as frustration with one seeps into displeasure with the other. More than half of civil servants have reported being victims of verbal or physical assault, which the dbb survey noted was "completely unacceptable."

"We, therefore, call for an overarching digitalization of public administration, the reduction of bureaucratic obstacles, doing away with overregulation and pointless reporting requirements, and the acceleration of approval and application procedures," Frank Zitka, dbb's spokesperson, told DW in a statement. 

While civil servants have some leeway in how they implement or enforce laws and regulations, the burden will lie with lawmakers to streamline bureaucracy and provide the funding for a smoother operation.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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