Public administration collaboration and digitalisation in times of COVID-19. Lessons from Germany?

20 May 2020 | Published by Gerhard Hammerschmid

Illustration: Colourbox

The current COVID-19 crisis sheds new light on the importance of state capacity and effective collaboration. The crisis has necessitated governments to deal with many new, unprecedented challenges, including  – but not limited to –  ensuring adequate resources for and coordination within national healthcare systems, collecting and analysing data from different sources, the development and use of digital solutions to trace and prevent infection spread, closing down certain segments of the labour market, and managing the consequences related to the closure of childcare facilities, schools and universities.  

Strong political leadership and effective government coordination are absolutely necessary to handle these issues, and some countries are clearly doing better than others. According to a recently published study by Deep Knowledge Group on government reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany stands out as a world leader with regard to safety, treatment efficiency and support offered to its citizens. However, when it comes to coordinating government digitalisation, Germany is consistently ranked at the bottom of European indexes. The question then becomes: How has Germany been so successful in tackling the COVID-19 crisis but at the same time has such a weak performance in digitalising the public sector?

State or administrative capacity (see the Hertie School Governance Report 2014 on this topic) is a key concept which allows us to better understand the capacity of modern states to manage crises and to launch and sustain innovations such as digital public services. Bureaucratic jurisdictions, turf wars, and strong hierarchies lead to silo cultures that often limit a government´s ability to effectively tackle the actual problems at hand. As a result, collaboration and collaborative governance has become one of the key features of a new, emerging public governance paradigm. The goal of collaborative governance is to bring together and align various public sector bodies from different government levels and policy areas. This often occurs under challenging conditions, which requires new competencies from the individuals working in these environments. Collaborative leadership thus emphasises the ability of leaders to bring together dispersed forms of expertise and move away from traditional hierarchical ways of working in favour of facilitating, negotiating or orchestrating roles. 

How can this approach help us to understand the performance paradox of the German government system? The slow progress with regard to government digitalisation and public service innovation has two major reasons, according to the findings of a survey among heads of administration from the three government levels (federal, state and local) in Germany. The survey is conducted annually by the Hertie School (Zukunftspanel Staat & Verwaltung).

In contrast to the current COVID-19 crisis, the political attention for government digitalisation is rather low and political leadership is lacking. The survey respondents see a clear political will as by far the most important factor needed to advance government digitalisation. The second key reason given for the slow progress is a rather weak collaboration within the very decentralized and fragmented German government system. The heads of administration also noted a large number of barriers towards better collaboration of government digitalisation, including existing accountability structures, lack of interoperability, high burden and work intensity, missing coordination bodies, and heterogenous IT infrastructures. Furthermore, they reported a lack of mutual trust and fear of a possible loss of competencies as important barriers towards better collaboration in the context of government digitalisation.

Whereas the devolved and fragmented German federal system on the one hand impedes collaboration in the context of government digitalisation, it has on the other hand offered a clear advantage in curbing the impact of COVID-19. As argued in a recent article from the Guardian, federalism’s “tortoise versus hare logic” put Germany in a better position to brave the pandemic than many other countries. Because German public health services are run by rather autonomous municipal and rural district administrations, it has allowed for faster, localized responses instead of waiting for top-down directives. The nearly 400 public health offices forging ahead with testing and treatment demonstrate the upsides of a system which distributes, rather than centralises, power.

With regard to government digitalisation in Germany, we have in our studies also observed positive developments. The last decade has seen an increasing awareness for stronger cooperation and new forms of collaboration, most importantly a joint federal and state government coordination body in the form of an IT planning council and the very ambitious Online Access Law enacted in 2018. The latter requires all government levels to digitalize all major public services by 2022, along with the development of a single digital gateway and a secure single-user account allowing access to administrative services. How far this “largest collaboration effort of German government over the last 20 years” will be implemented, is open. However, it has already triggered new ways of working together, most importantly a series of government labs bringing together all government levels and citizens to jointly develop digital solutions for key public services.

In order to analyse the dynamics and challenges of collaborative digitalisation efforts and what measures can help to make government collaboration work better, TROPICO Work Package 6: Practices of Internal Collaboration for Service Delivery conducted interviews with key actors involved in setting up and steering collaborations in five European countries. The first insights from the interviews show that new approaches of working together across government levels, emphasizing user orientation, developing a shared understanding of the future of digital government, building trust, and the emergence of a new generation of leaders and public servants with the competencies required to work together, are crucial drivers for more effective government collaboration. These developments could put Germany in a better position, not only to improve digital public services, but also to drive the implementation of digitally enhanced pandemic-related programs and services.

The TROPICO research in Work Package 6 aims to analyse government digitalisation and collaboration, not only from a German perspective, but also from the experiences of ten case studies in five EU countries. Its research serves to improve our understanding of how to foster government digitalisation and innovation, but also more broadly considers how to increase the problem-solving capacity of the modern state. The results will be published during the summer of 2020 and will be available on the TROPICO website.