Can the digital political awakening succeed?

By Stefan Heumann
Stefan Heumann, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung
Stefan Heumann is a member of the board of the Foundation for New Responsibility

In recent years, the digital policy debate in Germany has been dominated by headlines about failed IT projects and the ever-growing gap between Germany and European leaders such as Denmark, Finland, and Estonia. The new federal government now finally wants to initiate a long-awaited turnaround and promises a comprehensive digital awakening in the coalition agreement. But who is to be responsible for this change?

In the run-up to the Bundestag elections, two models were discussed in Berlin. Proponents of a digital ministry hoped to bundle central digital topics in one house and to have a strong voice for digital at the cabinet table. As a counter-proposal, a stronger role for the Chancellor’s Office in coordinating the government’s digital policy projects was discussed. To this end, competencies and resources in the Chancellor’s Office should be further expanded.

BMDV will not become a real digital ministry

Last week, the traffic light coalition surprised some with a completely different approach – neither a digital ministry nor a strengthening of the Chancellor’s Office. With its new responsibility for national, EU-wide, and international digital policy, for telecommunications regulation, and the operational projects of digital policy, the Federal Ministry of Transport will be significantly upgraded so that in the future it will have digital before transport in its name (BMDV).

Even with the new competencies, however, the BMDV is far from being able to pass as a “real” digital ministry. Above all, it lacks responsibility for the digitization of the administration, which remains in the Ministry of the Interior alongside responsibility for cybersecurity issues.

With responsibility for the most important industrial policy digital project of the last legislative period, the GAIA-X cloud project, and for start-ups anchored in the AI staff, central economic policy digital topics remain in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. The Ministry of the Environment (digital consumer protection), the Ministry of Labour (digital world of work), the Ministry of Research and Education (research funding for digital technologies, Digital Pact), and the Federal Foreign Office (digital foreign policy) also have an important say in the development and implementation of the digital policy agenda.

Supporters of a digital ministry in particular are critical of this broad distribution of competencies. However, digitization is a cross-cutting issue. Centralizing digital issues in one house, in other words, a kind of super ministry, was never realistic. After all, none of the coalition partners is prepared to hand over this important topic completely. In addition, such a reorganization would not only have cost a lot of time but would also have involved the withdrawal of valuable digital competencies from the other ministries.

Sensible redesigns – but key issues remain dispersed

The distribution of competencies between the ministries set out in the organizational decree reflects above all two not always compatible efforts: to regulate the allocation of competencies more clearly and better and to satisfy the interests of the negotiating parties. The former has been achieved, for example, in the bundling of broadband expansion and telecommunications regulation in the BMDV. The assignment of consumer protection to the Ministry of the Environment also makes sense, above all in terms of content and organization.

With party-political glasses on, many see the FDP as the real winner of the negotiations. With its focus on climate and foreign policy, however, it was clear even before the negotiations began that the Greens would have to concede a strong role to the SPD and the FDP on digital issues. The SPD has relinquished the Chancellor’s Office’s powers of coordination. At the same time, it occupies a key ministry for digital policy with the Ministry of the Interior and the responsibilities for administrative digitization and cyber security anchored there.

In view of the rejection of a digital ministry, the diminished role of the Chancellery raises the biggest questions for many. Yet this decision is consistent in itself and holds advantages. If Olaf Scholz does not see himself as a driver of digital issues, it would be fatal if he had brought them into the chancellery purely out of a power calculation. The departmental sovereignty also limits the Chancellery’s ability to influence coordination and implementation.

The Greens and the FDP understandably have little interest in weakening the power of the ministries in favor of the Chancellery. Moreover, recent years have shown that current crises rather than major transformation issues dominate the Chancellor’s agenda. In view of the ongoing COVID pandemic and a multitude of international conflicts, it is not very realistic that this will change.

Joint Digital Policy Project

In the traffic light government, the responsibility for a successful digital policy now lies with the line ministries and thus with the question of whether the coalition really succeeds in defining government responsibility as a joint project and not as a competition between the coalition partners. The negotiations have shown that the traffic light government could establish a new style of government. However, it must now transfer this cooperative style from the negotiations into the practice of government work.

The coalition agreement contains important points in this regard. These include the opening of the legislative process for better interdepartmental exchange and the integration of external expertise, the evaluation, and evidence-based policy measures, and the long-overdue modernization of the administration. Here, in the lowlands of processes, structures, and culture of government and administrative action, it will be decided whether the traffic light coalition will succeed in the hoped-for digital awakening.

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