17 April 2003

Robert Berengeno

We are all familiar with the scenario where we require authorisation or a decision from a public authority. Every time you call the line is busy, or the person you wish to speak to is not at their desk, or if you do get through to somebody, they cannot deal with your query. If they can deal with your query, it is very likely that no decision can be made over the telephone, since you must first put your query in writing by completing a form which you need to acquire. Ultimately the matter may require a personal appearance at the appropriate office during their office hours, normally “Monday to Friday from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.”, so the average employed person has to take a day off work to spend time waiting in the corridors of the public authority’s office. There is no doubt that the public authorities need (as any other private enterprise) a number of forms to simplify their numerous procedures, and obviously the person in charge is responsible for serving a large number of people so it is not always easy to get through to them. The problem would therefore seem to lie not in the public authority and not in the individual serving you, but in the inherent system.


The solution for this problem lies in e-Government. This allows individuals to liaise with the public sector via the Internet and includes participation in the political decision-making process. The aim is a modern, cost-effective state which acts quickly, simply and is user-friendly. Besides individuals, companies also have considerable contact with public authorities. One just has to think of areas such as public procurement, financial aids or authorisations which are required. In such cases these companies may well be forced to rely on public authorities. A well-organized and efficient public authority is therefore of great benefit to such companies while the opposite acts as an obstruction to the national economy. A modern national economy needs powerful and efficient public authorities. The German Federal Government confirmed on 14th November 2001, that up to the year 2005 all of its services will be provided online. By this, the Federal Government has the goal of cutting costs by a reduction in its workforce and the level of bureaucracy.

“Administrative Reform” in Germany

Procedures are only good if they are able to solve (even complex) problems in a simple and clear way. Germany’s government features a distinctive federal structure and a comprehensive municipal self-government. Even if this structure is politically sound, it causes an almost impenetrable maze for the person seeking advice. Government officials are also aware of the inherent problems and use e-Government as a platform for “administrative reform” to build a uniform administration. This is no simple undertaking considering the rigid and mulish German bureaucracy. But the vision that a citizen can handle all matters with public authorities via just one website is so enticing that the efforts must be considered worthwhile.

Try direct-democracy

Besides the aforementioned aspects of a better and leaner organisation, one should not forget another aspect of e-Government. The Internet provides the unique possibility of allowing a large number of people to participate in making real-time decisions regarding their community. The Internet is the interactive communication medium of the present and the future. As such it can be seen as the only measure to end the disenchantment with politics felt by many (particularly) young people by integrating them in the decision-making process for the community. The individual is much more willing to identify with such a modern state. The fear in Germany caused by the improper practice of direct democracy, which led to the Third Reich could be left behind because of the fundamental changes in German society throughout the decades.


Of course there are many hurdles to clear and many problems yet to be solved. Having a closer look at the problems in detail it becomes clear that e-Government has similar problems in developing as e-Commerce in Germany (and other European jurisdictions). The circulation of electronic signatures has to be brought forward. Furthermore, data security has to be properly considered. It must be clear that the personal data within the e-Government scheme is as well protected as it would be by a personal visit to a public authority. Moreover, a simple payment system in the Internet is needed. Since the issues are the same for both e-Commerce and e-Government, solving them will help both sectors, which is one more reason to push e-Government activities in Germany.