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Digital transformation strategies of German federal states

Katharina Brunner bidt
Andreas Jager bidt
Prof. Dr. Thomas Hess Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
Prof. Dr. Ursula Münch Akademie für Politische Bildung Tutzing (Scholarship - Education - Public Services)

How can politics shape digital transformation? The bidt study traces the strategy development at the federal-state level and examines how defined measures can be steered and implemented.

The most important facts in brief

Shaping the digital transformation poses major challenges for policymakers. As a multifaceted cross-cutting issue, it permeates all policy fields and cannot be smoothly integrated into existing political and administrative structures. In response to this design task, digitisation strategies have been established as governance instruments since 2015, first at the federal level and gradually in the federal states.

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This study examines how digital transformation can be shaped politically. The focus is on the published cross-departmental and cross-thematic digitisation strategies of the German federal states.

The case studies considered show significant commonalities with regard to the emergence of digitisation strategies:

Interdepartmental collaboration with a central coordination unit

The role of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO), which has been established in the private sector in recent years, is now also finding its way into the public sector. This function thus complements the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO), which has been established in politics for many years and is only responsible for the technical part of digitalisation, with a necessary overarching perspective on digital transformation processes.

A key focus of strategy development is to work out the overarching strategic goals and the measures necessary to implement them beyond the usual hierarchies and departmental responsibilities. It should also be ensured that the expertise available in the ministries is taken into account in the development of the strategy. It should not be overlooked that the involvement of personnel from different ministries generates an increased identification of the respective authorities with the goals and measures. This not only has a positive effect on the subsequent implementation phase. It also improves the possibility of developing and implementing complementary specialised strategies in line with the digitisation strategy.

Integration of external expertise

In addition to integrating different perspectives from the political sphere, integrating external expertise is also an essential component in the development process of digitisation strategies. For example, several countries used analogue and digital consultation processes to incorporate additional business, science and civil society opinions and expertise into the strategy-building process.

In this way, valuable insights from different areas of society could be generated. The number and diversity of the perspectives included also indicate how seriously policymakers take digitisation as a complex and diverse cross-cutting issue.

Anchoring at the highest political leadership level

In addition, political commitment at the highest political management level is essential for the strategy’s binding force and political appeal. Digitisation strategies are usually enshrined as projects in government programmes, which gives them great political weight. After they have been drawn up, the papers are adopted by the cabinet. They can be interpreted as political declarations of intent or self-commitments by the respective governments, further underlining their significance.

Clear institutional responsibilities

When implementing digitisation strategies, it becomes important to consider the institutional and procedural structures that support the achievement of overarching goals and related measures in line with the strategy.

Institutional anchoring is imperative: In most federal states, this lies with a digital department affiliated with an existing ministry. In addition, governments often coordinate at the highest level in digital cabinets or cabinet committees for digitalisation. Independent digital ministries are still the exception in the German federal states. Instead, the decentralised distribution of competencies to individual specialised ministries with a primarily responsible ministry (mostly the Ministry of Economics or the State Chancellery) is predominant.

Clear, externally visible responsibilities are more decisive than institutional allocation per se. However, coordinating bodies need political decision-making power to implement digital policy interests — even against possible resistance from other ministries. In this context, separate digitalisation budgets can strengthen digital policy decision-making competence.

Monitoring existing and planned digitisation projects

An overview of existing and planned digitisation projects is necessary for the targeted control of the implementation of digitisation measures. Only in this way can possible synergies and interfaces be identified and projects efficiently implemented in line with the strategic goals. However, continuous monitoring and corresponding coordination and correction processes are still underdeveloped in the states. They are mostly limited to assessments not based on quantifiable measurement criteria.

Digital policy project management and financial incentives

The study results clarify that far-reaching procedural adjustments are needed to further expand project management in the political-administrative sphere. The prioritisation of measures via financial steering arrangements and corresponding digital policy project management can be an important step in this direction. This enables coherent funding decisions across departmental boundaries and a coordinated and targeted management of digitisation projects. The control and overview function created in this way can thus be seen as a core element in implementing digitisation strategies in the federal states.

An integrative digitisation strategy needs a substructure of specialised strategies and investment programmes. Whether a strategy as a bracket and guiding document offers orientation for further considerations in ministries, authorities, or municipalities depends on how much it leaves room for subsidiary functional and operational sub-strategies and is accepted as guiding action in the political-administrative sphere.