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The Federal Government’s new digital strategy: The decisive element is still missing

At its cabinet meeting on 31 August 2022, the Federal Government adopted a new digital strategy. It is intended to provide a framework for digital policy across the boundaries of the ministries and is designed to run until the end of the legislative period in 2025. With the presentation of its digital strategy, the traffic light coalition is following on from similar efforts by previous governments. These also sought to coordinate digital policy across ministries using a digital strategy, even if some had different titles, such as "Digital Agenda". But does such a digital strategy make sense for a federal government?

One could argue that digital technologies change so quickly that planning for three to four years is impossible. Furthermore, one could argue that digital policy is primarily specialised, so a cross-departmental strategy makes little sense. However, both of these arguments fall short. Indeed, new digital technologies are constantly being developed. But the fundamental technological trends are not relatively so short-lived. Moreover, technologies do not come out of nowhere; through observation, e.g. in basic research, one can see them coming. And it is true that digital innovations, for example, in homeland security, have little to do with digital innovations in the health sector. But both can be promoted by artificial intelligence or quantum computing, for example, and the connection is clear. But some aspects go far beyond individual fields of application. Just think of the topic of privacy or a digital identity for citizens. It is thus clear that a digital strategy can be an essential steering instrument for a government. Another argument in favour of formulating a digital strategy is that the strategy development process alone is valuable because, in the course of developing

a digital strategy, all those involved are forced to deal substantially with the topic. This could otherwise be forgotten in day-to-day business.

Let us now turn to the contents of the digital strategy presented by the German government. First, a strategy should provide a framework for action, coordination, and motivation. This is expressed in two critical perspectives:

Firstly, it is important to ask how the strategy came into being because this expresses the distribution of roles in digital policy and the importance of the topic. The current strategy was developed bottom-up. The Federal Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport, which is in charge, collected issues, goals and measures from all other ministries and combined them into three fields of action (networked society, innovative economy, and digital state). The strategy thus documents the interest of the individual ministries in digitisation. It is positive to note that all ministries deal with the topic, albeit with apparent differences. In addition, three overarching topics with a particular leverage effect are indicated: (1) high-performance networks and the availability of data, (2) uniform technical norms and standards and finally, (3) digital identities and modern registers. Unfortunately, it remains only a hint here. While the projects mentioned are sensible and purposeful, it is unclear to what extent they will come. This is because, so far, no central budget could be used for these projects. This also makes it clear that the coordinating ministry can hardly influence the projects of the various departments. A unified line with a clear focus does not emerge in this way. Thus, central coordination of digital policy will hardly be possible. Some federal states are already structurally more advanced.

On the other hand, it is interesting which concrete topics and measures are addressed in the digital strategy. The official document contains chapters on the initial situation, goals and major projects, and fields of action and monitoring. With 40 of 52 pages, the section on the fields of action has by far the most significant weight. The section on the starting position deals with the state of digitisation, the European dimension and the cross-cutting nature of the topic. These are all crucial aspects. It is surprising that no significant space is given to the development of digital technologies, although technical development is a central driver of the transformation. The goals include statements on the desired developments in various areas of life and policy, from designing work in a digitalising world to implementing the Online Access Act. Thus, even if some sections are somewhat unspecific, orientation points are certainly given in the direction of the federal government’s vision. Visions are essential elements of strategies, as they provide a target direction for implementation without limiting the space of the possible too much. In the same section, there is also a reference to the fundamental issues with the leverage effect mentioned above. However, as discussed above, how these issues will be dealt with remains unclear. In the next section on the fields of action, the projects of the sectoral ministries are summarised in three fields. It is pleasing to see that some concrete goals are mentioned here. However, there are hardly any new approaches. For example, the topic of data economy includes the case of Gaia-X, and the issue of e-government includes the long-planned consolidation of IT systems. This is not surprising, however, since this strategy essentially describes existing projects of the departments without funds for larger new projects.

The concluding chapter on monitoring is interesting. Here it is announced that a round of state secretaries under the leadership of the Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport will monitor the implementation of the projects in the ministries and strive to implement the three priority topics mentioned above. However, it is questionable whether this will succeed and whether the political will to do so will ultimately be there because all experience shows that departmental coordination “among equals” usually leads to the individual ministries working side by side and sometimes even against each other. Effective coordination requires specific instruments, especially financial incentives or the right to issue directives. Neither the one nor the other has been created with the new digital strategy, so the crucial thing is still missing. The digital budget mentioned at one point in the digital strategy, but not yet conceived, is a promising approach to this. For example, a digital budget can be used to ensure that individual departments receive additional funds for central digital projects so that they do not compete with their previous activities and are, therefore, not tackled in the first place. In addition, a digital budget can help create competition between departments for new ideas and transparency regarding their implementation. However, this presupposes that such a digital budget is also centrally controlled by a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) based in the Federal Chancellery. Unfortunately, within the framework of the new digital strategy, it was once again neglected to design the governance structure for the cross-cutting topic of digitalisation accordingly. As we have argued elsewhere, the creation of CDOs in all ministries, which are coordinated by a federal CDO at government headquarters, could be a sensible structure for this. Without a digital budget and effective coordination, the digital strategy – despite promising approaches – thus, unfortunately, remains piecemeal. Thus, the federal government continues to fall short of its possibilities.

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