If digitization, then do it right! Digital dilettantism is still the rule in Germany

It’s no secret that Germany is not exactly a beacon when it comes to digitalization. According to a study conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey in 2022, Germany could save up to 16 billion euros per year by digitizing its administration – and spend it on more sensible projects such as modernizing schools. Even without clairvoyant abilities, it can be assumed that the pace of digitization in administration will not accelerate noticeably over the next ten years.

The reasons for this include the division of responsibilities between the federal, state and local authorities, the different IT systems and protocols of the federal states and simply the lack of prioritization. Instead of striving for an integrated solution at federal level, the process is – as is typical in Germany – bogged down in the minutiae. Each authority in each of the 16 federal states is beginning to digitize its services in some way on its own initiative (or not). This often means that applications can first be submitted online, only to be printed out again and processed in analog form at the authority – if citizens can even find the right website. Unlike most countries in the world, where official government websites have a simple .gov in the domain extension, Germany occasionally even creates new .de domains for individual services, such as elterngeld-digital.de. Of course, this immediately brings dubious “service providers” onto the scene, who simply offer the actually free service on a similar-sounding domain for a fee – of course only after highly sensitive data has been entered.

The situation is no different in the education sector: According to the “School Management Future Study 2023” by Wolters Kluwer, there is no discernible planned approach to the digitalization of public schools. School administrators in particular still largely carry out time-consuming and labor-intensive processes such as filing, scheduling and task planning as well as personnel management, including assessment, management, further training and recruitment of staff, in analog form.
Then there is the healthcare sector. The so-called telematics infrastructure, which is supposed to enable the reading of electronic health care cards and electronic sick notes, among other things, is so flawed that it leads to considerable extra work for doctors.
The list could go on and on. Due to the lack of an overall strategy and poor implementation, the digitalization of the public sector will remain a bottomless pit in the foreseeable future, bobbing along without leadership.

But anyone who believes that digital dilettantism in Germany is limited to the public sector is way off the mark. Even major traditional German brands are openly flaunting it in public.
Until recently, it was only possible to request an appointment for a seasonal tyre change at Audi in analogue form, but still very conveniently by making a short phone call, simply by giving your license plate number and name – until Audi digitized the process. This made the process more complicated and time-consuming for customers. When calling the usual number, customers are now directed to the new digital appointment system, which can be found on the website with a little patience. Then the marathon of questions begins: appointment request, license plate number, name, e-mail, mileage, vehicle identification number, first registration. The customer does not usually have the latter three details to hand, but has to laboriously gather them together.
BMW caused massive customer protest and the threat of a legal ban with the brazen idea of only activating certain optional extras already installed in the car for a monthly subscription fee, even though the hardware for this was already purchased with the purchase price. Somehow they wanted to jump on the general subscription hype.

Even more than ten years after Angela Merkel’s famous statement “The Internet is new territory for all of us”, these current examples make it clear that digitalization in Germany is still in its infancy. If digitalization does not follow an overall strategy and does not have the primary goal of making processes more efficient and simpler for everyone involved, it is completely ineffective or even counterproductive. Because if this is digitalization, who wants to welcome it with open arms?