Is Germany about to take a big step into the digital future? | Business | Economic and financial news from a German point of view | DW
The future is technology all the time. Competitiveness will depend on connectivity. Nothing has demonstrated this more clearly than the coronavirus pandemic, when for months local health authorities were forced to fax new COVID-19 case numbers to a central agency. In addition to disrupting everyday life, it showed that Germany is lagging far behind in digitization and rapid access to the Internet.
Working from home, virtual doctor visits, home schooling, and trying to get public services without showing up in person have pushed the system to the limit. Many school children were left to fend for themselves and citizens could not renew their ID cards as the country was not prepared for online appointments.
The lack of fast fiber-optic connections has long been a thorn in the side of digital nomads, startups, high-tech companies and those who live outside major cities. On September 26, German voters will once again be able to decide which way the county will take.
The most obvious: faster internet connections
When it comes to digitization, all political parties agree: more, better, faster. Only the timeframe, the details, and the amount of money they want to spend on the issues differ. But what are the parties proposing to capture the fourth industrial revolution?
The most obvious battle cry of the 2021 election manifesto is to expand the 5G mobile network and continue to lay the latest fiber optic cables to bring fast internet connections to every corner of the country. Every home and business must have access to it.
Without this basic foundation, all other parts of a digital future can be forgotten. It will require billions of annual investments – just to make up for lost years – and many more billions to reach the latest standards.
The current government, which includes Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her Bavarian sister party CSU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), has made this a clear goal. The pro-business opposition, the Free Liberal Democrats (FDP) and the Greens also see it as a major issue. This is important because any of these parties could be part of the next government coalition.
Last April, a law was passed giving everyone a legal right to fast internet access, although what this means in practice is still unknown. The hope is that better connectivity can help the country to be more competitive and attract more research and development, especially for innovative areas like autonomous driving, blockchain or artificial intelligence.
The Big One: A New Digital Ministry
Many attribute Germany’s slow progress in digitization to its decentralized political system. In many cases, states have a say or alone make decisions about their public sector and schools. Approval processes that cross state borders are cumbersome. Together, this makes nationwide planning difficult and leaves a patchwork of different regulations in each of the country’s 16 states.
The FDP and CDU want to get around this problem and promise a whole new ministry dedicated to digital transformation. Having been in power for the past 16 years, the CDU now sees such a ministry as necessary to centrally coordinate and plan all things digital. Creating and staffing a government agency from scratch, however, will not be easy.
At the very least, it could consolidate the work that is currently being duplicated in different agencies. It would also replace a small Digital Council set up in 2018 which works at the chancellery. The group is made up of 10 expert volunteers who advise the government and are supposed to push the conversation in the right direction.
The public: Institutions and identifiers
But it’s not just individuals or businesses that stand to benefit from a greater focus on technology. Party leaders see a great need, and an opportunity, to improve education. To move forward, they say all schools must have the latest technology, students must have access to online learning platforms and be equipped with tablets or laptops.
Perhaps less eye-catching than a new ministry or new schools, but no less important to citizens, is the slowness of paper-based public administration. Things are too analog and bureaucratic. Here, all parties agree that city hall and local governments must enter the 21st century.
The European Union’s most recent index for the digital economy and society places Germany at the bottom of the list when ranking online citizen services among member countries. Only the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece and Romania rank lower.
It will require huge changes and investments. At the same time, the parties want to make digital identification the norm. This would facilitate relations with the authorities by providing online services such as changes of address, registration of the birth of a child or the renewal of a passport.
Filling out forms, requests and signatures might be possible without queuing if more national standard processes are put in place.
The trickiest: data and IT security
But digital identifiers, whether general or healthcare-related, will mean more data such as social security and tax numbers will be “available.” And that’s something a lot of Germans don’t like. It also makes those who send and receive data more vulnerable to data theft, abuse or worse.
After several spectacular ransomware attacks against businesses, local communities and individuals, everyone understands the risks of being online. This is why the main parties are also calling for strengthening data protection and IT security, for example by creating the Information Security Office (BSI). Other ideas are to create more European technological champions, artificial intelligence capabilities and infrastructure to be less dependent on the United States or China.
Overall, the need to accelerate digitization in an organized and secure manner is something almost everyone in Germany can agree on. Whoever wins the election will have to fill a big order quickly, because the digital age awaits no one.