The new “Digitalrat” in Germany — Panel of “warm words” or powerful council of experts?

The digital transformation offers enormous opportunities for the people in Germany and for society. In order for everyone to be able to participate, the federal government of Germany must set the right political course. But this is exactly what has been the problem in recent years: too little impetus, too hesitant action, too small initiatives. But now everything should be different — because since a few days Germany has a so-called “Digital Council”. But is everything getting better now?

Why does the Digital Council exist?

Digitization is already changing many aspects of everyday life in Germany (and in all other countries as well) and the changes will continue at unabated pace, even accelerating. However, there is still a snag in setting the framework for dealing with and using these changes, and it is sometimes enormous. This is partly due to the respective processes in the legislation and the administration, but also simply due to the lack of expertise in the Chancellery, in the federal ministries and the administrative levels responsible for the implementation. Moreover, in Germany there is a fundamental mistrust of the already visible changes.

The Digital Council should remedy this situation. It is a voluntarily working ten-member panel of experts, which, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel should “stimulate the federal government and ask uncomfortable questions”.

Somewhat unclear are the topics that the Digital Council will deal with. In a video podcast, the Federal Chancellor named the topics of “broadband expansion, education, eGovernment and artificial intelligence” as important. However, according to an article in the newspaper Tagesspiegel of August 22nd, 2018, the Digital Council is primarily concerned with these four central topics: the future of the working environment, the handling of data, the start-up scene and new opportunities for participation. In addition, a cross-cutting issue will be the question of how digitalisation affects culture and society. The Digital Counsil should also have exchanges with individual ministries, some of which have their own departments for digital questions concerning them.

Who belongs to the digital council?

The members of the Digital Council come not only from Germany, but also from Switzerland, Austria and the USA: Law professor Beth Simone Noveck, who was responsible for digitization under Barack Obama, the ex-president of the USA, is for example from New York. The other members are: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford, Urs Gasser, Director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Ada Pellert, Rector of the University of Hagen, Peter Parycek, Head of the Public IT Competence Center Fraunhofer FOKUS Institute, scientist Andreas Weigend and the three entrepreneurs and founders Ijad Madisch (Researchgate), Stephanie Kaiser (Heartbeat Labs) and Hans-Christian Boos (Arago).

Where are the deficits in Germany regarding digitalization and what are the problems concerning their elimination?

There are a lot of deficits in Germany regarding digitalization — it is difficult to find a good starting point when describing them because there are so many: Regarding supply with fast internet connection (keyword broadband expansion) Germany is at best in the midfield. The digital equipment of schools in Germany is sometimes hair-raisingly bad (tablets, eLearning offers or just good computers are often not available), not to mention reasonable training offers for teachers (on the one hand for usining digital services in general, on the other hand regarding the development and expansion of digital skills). And if you have a look at countries like Estonia and look at their offers regarding eGovernment and digital administration, then one can only rub one´s eyes: Digital reporting (passport or ID card apply online?), founding a business like a limited liability company online, preparation of visits of authorities with online support — in Germany mostly not available or existent.

In addition, founding a business are unnecessarily complicated because several authorities are responsible for the various registrations, the framework conditions for innovative business areas such as eHealth, artificial intelligence or self-propelled means of transportation (like cars, trucks and drones) are rudimentary and if the subject “data security is mentioned it comes reflexively to hysterical seizures, instead of thinking about and taking advantage of the opportunities (the digital ministries Dorothee Bär in an interview with the newspaper Münchner Merkur of August 28th, 2018 formulated it so beautifully: “We are the land of discount cards, coupons and prize competitions and we throw our data at everybody — but when it comes to technology we are suddenly massively concerned.”).

Obviously, the deficits are massive and diverse. However, there is no lack of ideas on how to eliminate these deficits. For example, in the past, there have been e.g. results of the “Enquete Commission Internet and Digital Society”, expert groups in various ministries with concrete proposals as well as various white and green books and conferences on various digitization-relevant areas with recommendations for actions (I myself, for example, welcomed 400 young entrepreneurs in the name of the “Wirtschaftsjunioren Deutschland” (Young Entrepreneurs of Germany) for the G20 Young Entrepreneurs´ Alliance (G20 YEA) Summit 2017 in Berlin , which formulated various demands and recommendations of the young entrepreneurs of the G20 countries to the Heads of State and Government).

One can therefore say that there is no problem of cognition regarding digital policy issues, but a massive decision and implementation deficit.

Will everything be better with the Digital Council?

If you take a look at the comments that were published regarding the Digital Council, then you realize: the expectations are not high. Some think of the Digital Council as a “Bla bla panel”, of a “tragedy, if the government in 2018 still needs advice regarding digitization” and of “the lack of courage to consistently stand up for the chances of digital development”. The Digital Council — a failure from the start, maybe even a disaster?

I believe that some commentators and some speakers of various political parties go too far in their remarks. Because when you look at Germany, it becomes clear that one of the central issues is the negative view of digitization and its opportunities. Problems are seen much quicker than chances, individual negative examples are in the focus, the attitude “just to do it, even if it may not work” is far behind the attitude “first we have to be 120% sure”.

Here, however, I see exciting tendencies for improvement: First, with the implementation of the digital ministries Dorothee Bär, there is finally a high-ranking political representative with a broad reach in the media, who speaks positively about the opportunities of digitization. And in addition, there is now a Digital Council, whose members were not chosen by political representation, but because of their level of objective expertise (of course you can always criticize the individual members and their expertise — but that does not change the big picture regarding the level of expertise of the Digital Council in general). And the Digital Council will not only look at the challenges created by digitalization — this is especially the case because of the three entrepreneurs in the Digital Council, who themselves have an interest in the possibilities offered by digitization because of their entrepreneurial background. In addition, the digital council will have direct access to the Federal Chancellor, because its main purpose is to advise the Chancellor — therefore, the Digital Council will have enough backing that its views and opinions cannot be ignored easily.

Of course, it will ultimately depend on whether the Chancellor is listening to the Digital Council’s proposals. And of course, if its proposals are accepted, these proposals will have to be implemented. Exactly at this point it will then become clear whether the Chancellor is serious when she said the Digital Council should “stimulate and be uncomfortable”.

And it is also clear that the Digital Ccouncil has to prove itself. It is up to the members of the Digital Council to become actively engaged, perhaps to take a clear stance on nonsensical projects and say No to them. And the Digital Council will have to show that it is able to understand the special role of digital politics as a cross-cutting issue with its different facets and that it is able to take them into account in its statements. For me, it is positive that the Digital Council is more international than is otherwise usual in advisory committees of the Federal Government, because this international expertise is an advantage that will help to allow new perspectives.

For my part, I am currently cautiously optimistic about the Digital Council. Let’s let the Digital Council make its first suggestions and let’s see how the implementation works. Anyone who has expected that the Digital Council will shoot Germany into the “digital paradise” is in my opinion a dreamer. But when it comes to taking the next step to make Germany as a whole more familiar with the opportunities of digitization and to set the course for the future, the digital council could be the next step.

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Carsten Lexa is the former Chairman of the Steering Committee of the G20 Young Entrepreneurs´ Alliance (www.g20yea.com) and was as President of G20 YEA Germany the host of the G20 YEA Summit 2017 in Berlin. A corporate lawyer by profession and equipped with his own law firm, he advises German and international clients (who want to do business in Germany) in corporate and commercial legal matters. He is, by invitation of the European Commission, a participant in the annual SME Assembly. He is a member of the B20 Task Forces and was from 2014 to 2017 the General Legal Counsel and also a member of the national board of JCI Germany (WJD — Wirtschaftsjunioren Deutschland), the biggest organization for young leaders and entrepreneurs in Germany. He is also the co-founder of “Gründen@Würzburg”, the startup initiative of the German city of Würzburg.

Former Chairman G20 Young Entrepreneurs' Alliance (YEA), Co-founder startup initiative “Gründen@Würzburg”, Startup Investor, Commercial Law Firm Owner