At present, the digital administrative landscape in Germany has been dominated by isolated solutions and the German Online Access Act (OZG) seeks to support harmonisation and better collaboration by creating uniform standards across administrative levels. It obliges the federal administration, the Länder and the municipalities to offer their administrative services digitally by the end of 2022. So far, 575 services are affected by this law, most of which are carried out by the Länder and municipalities. In the Digitalisierungsprogramm Föderal (federal digitalisation program) these services are subdivided into 14 subject areas. These subdivisions do not reflect formal competencies, but have been drawn from the user's perspective. For example, the subject area “Family and Child” includes all services related to birth, marriage and divorce. For each area, a so-called “digitalisation lab” has been created to formulate the corresponding implementation strategy for the service. As a truly novel mean of executive collaboration, each of these labs bring together at least one federal ministry and one of the 16 federal states. Not all labs have been established simultaneously, instead the number and conditions of the labs are decided for each subject area by the federal state and the federal ministry in charge. In the subject area “Immigration and Emigration”, two labs have been set up for the prioritised services residence permit for the purpose of gainful employment and formal obligation, which should both be finished by summer 2019.


Aims and goals

In general, the digitalisation labs are organised by external consultancies, which have been contracted by the IT Planning Council to manage the labs within the framework of rather few guidelines set up by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community. The labs' participants include experts in the fields of law, technology and digitalisation but also users of the distinct administrative service. While the users are chosen by the consultancies, the other participants are selected by the administrations involved in the subject area.

The labs pursue two goals. On the one hand, they seek to develop as user-friendly services as possible. For this purpose, users of the services are interviewed by the consultants and their experiences are brought into the digitalisation labs. On the other hand, the labs aim to involve all levels in the implementation of services, i.e. the federal, the state, and the local level. Next to their expertise, this arrangement also seeks to increase the acceptance for jointly developed solutions across the traditionally rather disconnected levels within an executive federalism that usually distributes policy formulation and implementation vertically (federal government formulates and state and local governments implement) and where local self-government is a constitutionally protected norm.


Key ICT features

Each digitalisation lab addresses one service in more detail. The participants first consider the current status of the service. In a second step, they develop ideal processes applying methods such as design thinking. However, no specific ICT tools are applied or used to execute this step of status quo assessment. Legal requirements or other restrictions are also disregarded at this stage. In the second stage, the external consultants develop click dummies based on the first step. However, these do not represent a future ICT application for administrative procedures but only a showcase. Although these tools are therefore ICT in nature, they are still test versions that are explicitly not designed to be rolled out in the field afterwards and instead focus on the citizen-government interface only. In a third stage, these can be tested by the labs' participants, including the selected users. At this this point it is too early to assess the fate of these developed click dummies after the labs will have completed their work. While the consulting companies may seek follow-up projects to develop these further and advice on their implementation, other actors assume that these ICT test applications for administrative procedures will be further specified and implemented by other IT service providers.


Implications and (un)intended effects

1. Legitimacy

One of the main goals of the digitalisation labs is to develop user-friendly digital services. For this purpose, selected users are directly involved and participate in their development. Hence, digitalisation labs may result in positive effects on democratic legitimacy as they add another venue or rather access point for citizens to participate in the development of government policy, here in the federal governments' strategy for digitising distinct administrative services. Yet, the inner workings of the lab are at the same time also a potential challenge for democratic legitimacy: External consultancies dominate their management and thus may shape the decision-making, as they operate with only a few guidelines. Also the internal procedures and results of the labs' work are not available to the general public and there is barely free accessible information on the design or composition of the labs.

In addition to developing user-friendly administrative services, the digitalisation labs are primarily set up to bring the different state levels for implementing the OZG together in a novel way. At this initial phase, all actors seem open-minded to this new form of horizontal and especially vertical collaboration, they stress that the labs allow to participate equally. Previous problems arising from traditional multi-level governance means could be circumvented (so far). However, diverging interests and party-political conflicts are to be expected to rise over the course of the labs, also because of the political salience of some administrative services.


2. Efficiency and Effectiveness

With flat hierarchies and novel methods, the digitalisation labs are well suited to develop innovative solutions. So far, the existing labs show positive effects. In particular, the flat hierarchy offers the representatives of the different state levels an opportunity to exchange their views on an equal footing. This allows the actors to reflect on each other's situation and supports a better understanding of positions and interests. First experiences show that the digitalisation labs are more effective in identifying implementation solutions than traditional collaboration means. At the same time, discussing click dummies and ignoring existing legal regulations enable the identification of more innovative solutions.

More critical expectations are raised regarding the sustainability of the results produced in the digitalisation labs as many involved actors doubt that these would be implemented comprehensively. While the labs are mainly concerned with the technical design of the services, other questions, for example financing, are deliberately ignored. Therefore, a majority of actors expects that conflicts will arise at the end of labs when the concrete implementation and financing as well as necessary formal and regulatory changes will have to be decided. The labs are only set up for a few months, they will be completed with the development of a front-end solution and are subsequently dissolved. Therefore, they will not be involved in subsequent implementation or policy formulation.


3. Politics-Administration Dichotomy

The IT Planning Council's focus on user orientation has also implications for the traditional logic of bureaucratic action. While competence and hierarchy used to be the key terms for administrative action in the German bureaucracy following the Weberian ideal, the digitalisation labs are focused on equal, cross-competence collaboration. Lab actors therefore discuss topics that exceed their formal competencies. Politics is putting pressure to adapt to this change and formulates high expectations on the results of the labs. The digitalisation labs can thus be regarded as part of an administrative reform, through which politics tries to strengthen the ability of the state to respond to the needs of the citizenry in a digitalised future.

Further materials

The following sources (in German) provide additional information on the digitalisation labs and the implementation of the OZG:

  • Information of the on the federal digitalisation program and digitalisation labs (2019). Available here.
  • Catalogue for the implementation of the OZG (2018). Available here.

About the Author

Nora Carstens, University of Potsdam

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