Außenansicht Deutscher Bundestag Foto: Deutscher Bundestag/Axel Hartmann

“Giving citizens control of their data”

Professor Ines Mergel advises the German Bundestag’s Committee on the Digital Agenda and presents recommendations for digitising the German public administration

“Digital transformation provides public administrators with the opportunity to transform administrative processes with a user-centric benefit in mind – a bottom-up process that does not need to follow the internal logic of the agency”. Professor Ines Mergel, full professor of public administration at the University of Konstanz, was invited to speak before the Bundestag and make recommendations on the topic of digitisation in public administration. Ines Mergel was consulted as an expert on the topic of “Moderner Staat – Chancen durch die Digitalisierung” (the modern state – new digital opportunities) by the German Bundestag’s Committee on the Digital Agenda. Both in her public address and in her written statement, the administrative scientist emphatically recommended that the digitisation of public administration services (e-government) reflect citizens’ search and user behaviour. She also advocated for transparency in data usage. “Citizens must retain control over who has access to their data”, Ines Mergel says.

“Usage of existing e-government services is stagnating in Germany because they are deemed impractical by the very citizens for whom they were designed”, Ines Mergel explains with reference to new research on the topic. It suggests that less than one fifth of the German population uses the available e-services. Mergel points out that “digital transformation, which has been successfully implemented in most areas of modern life and has since become a fact of life for customers in the private sector, seems to stall in the public administration context”. She believes this to be due to the fact that online services in this area were designed from an administrative viewpoint that is not at all consistent with how citizens use and search for digital services. Often, information is difficult to find, available electronic correspondence and payment systems are cumbersome to operate and online application forms must be printed out and handed in to the relevant authority.

“If we want to achieve a digital transformation by combining administrative science with IT expertise, we must change the way we educate our public administration staff”, Mergel concludes. It is important to come up with altogether new processes, she explains, rather than trying to create direct digital copies of analogue ones. According to her, the digitisation of public administration is our chance to rethink and streamline existing bureaucratic procedures: “Online, the contents of an 18-page form may be shrunk down to a single page”.

“It won't be necessary to reinvent the wheel”, Mergel elaborates, or to cling to the German way of doing things: “It is less important to come up with new legal provisions than it is to agree early on to principles that can be shared across administrative departmental silos”. Denmark provides a model for such user-friendly e-services in digital administration. “In Denmark, the primary focus was on encouraging its citizens to use the new digital services by creating a wide field of potential applications, rather than a technologically and legally perfect infrastructure”. In this context, it is particularly important to create a working system that provides an added advantage for people and thus becomes an integral part of their everyday lives, she continues. “In Denmark, this was achieved by offering a variety of additional digital services”. This included, amongst other things, a service that lets individuals use their electronic ID to access their bank account. Transparency, however, is key. Citizens must be kept informed about and be able to exert control over how their private data is accessed and used. “Giving citizens control of their data is crucial”, Mergel emphasises: “Transparency in public administration can only be achieved if and when citizens know how their data is being used”.