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Linking up the Town Hall

March 20, 2002

Germany is ranked 10th in the EU in the digitalization of administrative and public services for citizens online. That should change in the next few years with new software for e-government.

Service at your fingertipsImage: AP

The European Information Technology Observatory (EITO) recently conducted a study showing that Germany lags behind the rest of the EU in the money it spends developing e-government programs.

Based on economic strength and overall level of computer usage, Germany should be doing a lot more to get city, states and federal offices online.

Last year Germany invested 11.4 billion euro on e-government projects, which are defined as electronic sites for citizen administrative offices such as town halls.

Users can call up the address in the internet, download information, fill out and submit any required forms, and engage in a virtual dialogue with local or federal officials.

In absolute terms, Germany ranks second behind Great Britain and France in the amount of money spent for such projects. In terms of actual services available online, however, Germany is far behind Denmark, Finnland, Austria and Spain.

Even more surprising, marginal countries like Estonia and Latvia have invested significantly in modern online public services, said Mummert and Partner, a Hamburg consultancy group for the IT branch.

E-government is the trend of the future.

Europe is rapidly embracing the comfort and efficiency of conducting bureaucratic tasks over the internet. Only Germany is dragging its feet, the EITO pointed out shortly before the start of CeBIT.

But if Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has his way, Germany will be completely linked up by 2005.

At that time all public administrative services from auto registration to school enrollment will be conducted online. The goal is a nationwide "virtual town hall" on all levels of government.

No waiting required

At a CeBIT forum on e-government held this past week, the Minister President of Lower Saxony Sigmar Gabriel, described the current situation in Germany’s public service sector and how it will change in the future.

Nearly all local governments have their own website, and it is standard practice today for Germans to download governmental information from the internet, Gabriel said.

People can sit in the comfort of their own home and look up whatever they need to know; they don’t have to stand in line at some town office building and wait for a civil servant to answer their questions.

When it comes to communication, for example an exchange of emails between a citizen and a civil servant, the situation is considerably less positive, Gabriel admitted.

Technically, everything is already in place for such a person to person dialogue. The real obstacle is financial.

Every governmental department has a mail delivery system – usually the old fashioned hand-to-hand method. And because the public budgets are forced to save wherever possible, the decision on electronic post is clear: we already have one post system, why should we introduce a new one, Gabriel explained.

On the downside, the cost cutting measures means "the introduction of email applications in government takes place slower than in the business world".

Over the next year or so, the communication between civil employees and citizens will improve, especially once offices begin to recognize that email actually saves time and money.

One stop government

"More important is the question of electronic transactions. This is more than downloading official forms, printing, filling them out and sending them back by ordinary post", Gabriel said.

Instead there needs to be a secure and legally-binding system for exchanging documents over the internet.

The citizen is not interested in who does what and how in terms of public services, Gabriel said. "The only thing they want, is that their requests be taken care of quickly, efficiently and in keeping with their understanding of government service."

The European Union has outlined similar goals for e-government projects.

In its eEurope Program, Brussels has listed a five step process for complete online service.

  1. No public governmental websites
  2. Information: Online information about public services
  3. Interaction: downloading forms and applications
  4. Two-way interaction: filling out forms and returning them for civil employees to work on
  5. Transaction: case handling; complete working and decision making process online, including signature notification and payment delivery

In other words, the ideal e-government system would be a single public Internet site, where citizens can submit their requests and applications to a virtual office, which then deals with them in an appropriate manner online and corresponds regularly with the citizen throughout the process.

"One stop government" is what Gabriel calls this vision.

The question is whether or not it will be realized by 2005, the year the German Chancellor has set for the computers to start doing the work of citizens.