The left hand caresses the newborn in its cot, the thumb of the right hand hovers over the display of the mobile phone. “من هو الشخص الذي يتغذى به؟” – “What should your child be called?” Just a few questions and the digital birth certificate ends up in the documents folder of the central administration app. The multilingual chatbot takes care of that; Even German native speakers no longer have to grapple with official German. A few clicks and child benefit is also approved. Time for the bottle.
Less routine work, more time for the citizens
Anyone who has a child, moves or wants to extend a residence permit in 2030 may no longer have to carry paper forms to the office or stand in line. Forget the waiting numbers in the hundreds and the gray plastic seats in the citizens’ office – the face of the state in everyday life is digital. Time-consuming standard services run automatically. If something doesn’t work, a clerk joins in and looks to see where the problem is. In general, the employees in the offices have more time for complex cases and advice. Some citizens’ offices offer home visits for the elderly and the homeless. But back to reality.
Technically feasible, practically impossible
“The data should run, not the citizens” has been the motto of everyone who has been trying to drag the German administrative colossus into the 21st century for two decades. The saying of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who hoped that Expo 2000 would awaken a completely new desire for digital in the authorities, became a watchword. The Federal Ministry of the Interior stated the E-government, i.e. digital administration, promptly became a central government task.
Just in time for the tenth anniversary of the ID card with online function in October 2020, the disillusionment: just six percent of Germans have ever identified themselves with the so-called “eID” on the Internet. The latest also certifies otherwise eGovernment Monitor the digital network D21 has made rather modest progress: more than half of the population used at least one administrative service on the Internet in the last year. Provided that you also count those who checked the opening times of the citizens’ office.
Most public authorities on the Internet, regardless of whether they are at the federal, state or local level, are still information, telephone numbers and forms for downloading. And the few online services are often anything but user-friendly. who the user experience from GoogleDocs or Slack is used to, is thrown out with the seven-stage appointment allocation in the Cologne registry office. Not to mention the electronic tax return.
Germany should catch up
The size of the population, the federal structure, the skepticism of the citizens when the state wants to access their data – in the Federal Republic it is comparatively difficult to modernize the administration. In the European comparison of the EU Commission, Germany recently made it into place 21 out of 28 for e-government, ahead of the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. That should change by the end of 2022. At least that is what the Online Access Act (OZG) of 2017 wants; Within the next two years, it should be possible to request almost 600 administrative services on the Internet. Among the latest additions to the project website of the federal government: the Corona bridging aid. And the opportunity to register private raffles in Hamburg.
The legal status quo does not allow for bigger leaps. A reform of the registration law and a modernization of the registration, person and vehicle registers have yet to be passed by the Bundestag: where in the last century the authorities of two totalitarian states have collected and passed on as much information as possible about the citizens, the exchange of personal data should definitely and be constitutional.
The neighbors’ utopias
A look at the neighboring countries shows what is possible when administrations are not a decade behind in terms of digitization. There, algorithms have been relieving clerks of routine tasks for years.
In Austria, a variant of the automatic child benefit has been a reality since 2015. The “application-free family allowance” even reaches the account of new parents without any action – the hospital, registry office and tax office clarify this with the help of algorithmic systems. In Estonia, algorithms take care of sending job seekers suitable vacancies. Students in Denmark apply for state study support online without having to upload evidence – an algorithm in the central personal database checks whether they are enrolled in a recognized course of study.
In the crosshairs of the algorithms
But algorithms can do more than just routine work. If they are programmed for this, they interpret complex data sets and select suitable measures for a specific purpose from the specified options. These “automated decision-making systems” (AES) are intended to help administrative staff to make better and faster decisions. And they regularly violate data protection or discriminate against certain population groups. Not because they develop their own dynamic like “Artificial Intelligence”. It’s simply because their programs aren’t scrutinized enough.
In Denmark, the data protection authority intervened in 2019 when some municipalities wanted to use an AES to assess where children could be at risk at home. The algorithm would have picked those parents from the country’s centralized register of persons who match indicators such as “divorce”, “missed doctor’s appointment”, “mental health problems” or “job loss”.
In Austria, too, the top data protection officers recently stopped an AES, this time at the state employment service. The algorithm should determine the job market chances of the unemployed and suggest who might be worth retraining for. Since personal data such as age, health status and qualification level are not allowed to be processed in this way, the project was canceled. A new study by the Vienna University of Technology also shows: the recommendation algorithm would have systematically disadvantaged older, sick and low-skilled people.
An AES from the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs even had to be legally banned this year. Up to this point, the algorithm had tracked down potential fraudsters – but only in places with a particularly large number of low-income households. There were no indications that social fraud was committed there above average. The data for the calculation were originally collected for completely different purposes.
Digitally behind, democratically ahead?
The German NGO Algorithmwatch is actually optimistic about the arrival of algorithms in the administrative mainstream. Even when it comes to automated decision-making. “It just has to be done right”, says Matthias Spielkamp, managing director of the organization. There are still many problems with that. Mainly because the population is not adequately informed and taken along. Spielkamp believes it is realistic that there could be a scandal in Germany before the topic of AES becomes more public: “People are interested when it affects them in everyday life”. Neither expert panels nor techno-legal jargon would make people understand the social, ethical and political consequences of technology.
The Federal Government’s Data Ethics Commission also agrees: people should not only be informed about the new technologies, but should also critically monitor progress. In its report on the ethical use of algorithms last year, the commission devoted one of almost 250 pages to the digital skills of citizens: Government, media and civil society should rock this together. How exactly remains open.
[Die deutsche Verschlafenheit bei der Digitalisierung könnte also auch ein demokratischer Vorsprung gegenüber den Nachbarländern sein: Zusätzliche Zeit, der Bevölkerung das nötige Knowhow zu vermitteln, statt sie vor vollendete Tatsachen zu stellen.]