Working theory regarding bureaucracy

German form terror

I’m revising my working theory for Germany based on experiences from last week and other things that have happened. My old one on Germany’s attitude towards modernity still holds, but talking with open government activists and my experiences with government here, have prompted the following.

One of the biggest mysteries for me is why Germany is so far behind when it comes to open government compared to the Netherlands. With Hack de Overheid we have been on a roll last year with nearly every institution coming forward and pushing towards more openness. We even got Minister Verhagen on television to pledge to our goal. All of this does not mean we have won yet, but it does show a momentum into the right direction.

The German situation in comparison beggars belief. The very fact that it is a good thing for government to open up their data in a machine-readable fashion, still seems to be up for debate in many circles. The open government movement itself is denied outright and not heard in official proceedings even when it would be total common sense to take their input.

I have no clue how in this day and age such an opinion is tenable, but I will wager two possible explanations:

  1. German goverment is hideously complex. There are tons of layers of government because of the federal system and the scale of the country1. There are also parallel governments and institutions that are similarly layered, so for each and every query you have, you may be pointed any way up, down or sideways into the hierarchy. This is a very easy way to get sent in endless loops2 and for the entire system to hold itself in gridlock.
  2. This one is more subtle: German government is very bureaucratical. The promise of open data and open government is ultimately to replace well defined bureaucratic systems with automation. At a point it no longer matters whether you send a physical form into government for human processing or whether you fill something in online and a computer performs the same operation.
    Whether they realize it or not, by filibustering openness in government, the civil servants are ensuring that they will still have a job in twenty years’ time.

And before you say the above is an unfair characterization of the ruling elites in Germany, you only have to read this recent missive by CDU Bundestag member Heveling (outtakes by Peter Bihr here) to confirm the ruling class’s difficult relation with the internet. Heveling has caused quite the uproar here. Though I wonder if the German twittersphere may let themselves be baited too easily. If we in the Netherlands went batshit crazy every time somebody from the CDA said something stupid about the internet, we would get nary a thing done.

  1. Compared to the Netherlands where there is only the municipal level and the national level. Nobody gives a shit about the couple of things in between.
  2. In Dutch we say: ‘van het kastje naar de muur sturen’.

One thought on “Working theory regarding bureaucracy”

  1. Hi Alper,

    Good write-up!

    I am definitely in favor of open data and can see how it can cease and desist major inefficiencies.

    About Germany then. I can relate to what you say. Just to make a note: Germany is probably the only European country that will maintain a healthy balance from a classic economic theory point of view because. This is because they have been capable in maintaining their know-how in-house and haven’t kicked out their best of class industrial production to the third world the way the rest of us in Europe have done. So if everything is running fine, what does change, i.e. working with Open Data really mean to them anyway then?

    Germany really is a production and federalized country with its own specific rules and regulations. For example, businesses keep the original wet copy of their invoices inside the country. They are not allowed to send it across, they have to fax it to the country where the invoices are going to be processed. This behavior also reflects in the IT systems they use of course. The IT landscape is much more hardened and I see this in my job on a daily base.

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