The energy crisis, the war in Ukraine and the transformation of the labor market – the digital strategy will only be a side note at the cabinet meeting. The project is as ambitious as it is relevant: the government wants to get into the top ten of the European digital index – for the digital latecomer Germany that is an appropriately ambitious goal.
Since the beginning of the year, the planning for a corresponding strategy has been coming together in the house of Transport and Digital Minister Volker Wissing (FDP). Each department was called upon to develop ambitious goals for digital transformation by 2025.
Digital policy, regulation, artificial intelligence: the briefing on digitization
This has also been successful in the beginning. The new version of the paper stipulates, for example, that 80 percent of those with statutory health insurance should use an electronic patient file by 2025. Or that the digitization of administrative services – with a delay of a few years – should finally have been successful across the board. By then there should also be self-driving cars on German roads.
The goals should be as measurable as possible and thus also the success at the end of the legislative period. Wissing wants to personally guarantee that the implementation is monitored and that the strategy as a whole is successful.
On the one hand, the digital strategy is an admission that digital policy has little chance of achieving tangible results without central coordination. In the past legislative period, attempts were made to control the complex processes from the Chancellery with the help of the Minister of State for Digital Affairs, Dorothee Bär (CSU).
From there, the modernization of the federal IT was overseen, the federally organized digitization of the administration was driven and a data strategy for Germany was designed. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) personally campaigned for the first commercial quantum computer to come to Germany.
Nevertheless, the grand coalition had a mixed record at best, failing on projects such as the digital ID card or driver’s license for everyone. It is therefore not a rewarding task to compensate for Germany’s digitization deficits. And Olaf Scholz (SPD), Merkel’s successor in office? Personally, he is conspicuously disinterested in everything to do with digitization. He also hardly seems to feel responsible for ensuring that the new managers in the departments can work effectively.
Also striking: One year after the Bundestag elections, the responsibilities remained unclear for a long time. For example, it has now been decided who will be allowed to set up and develop the planned data institute for Germany. Actually, it should have been the task of the Chancellery to speak the word of power at an early stage. In Meseberg, the cabinet should at least adopt a key issues paper on digital policy responsibilities, which cements Scholz’ organizational decree from December.
In accordance with the changed priorities, the former digital department six in the Chancellery, which was headed by her confidante Eva Christiansen under Merkel, is now being restructured. From here, the future focus will be on partnerships and dialogue to support social and economic transformation. In August, Max Neufeind, a former digital strategist from Scholz’s Federal Ministry of Finance, took over the “Basic Questions of Transformation” department under Benjamin Mikfeld (head of department) and Heike Zirden (head of group). Scholz’s new “Future Council” has also started its work. The government ignored its own digital council for the first year.
Instead of pursuing operational digital policy, the government headquarters is adopting a new tool: strategic foresight. Cilia Ebert-Libeskind heads the relevant department in the Chancellery. In addition, the Chancellery is considering setting up its own “future laboratory” in which far-reaching decisions by the government can be checked beforehand for their “future compatibility”. This is the core of a study commissioned by the government from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI). It was examined how methods of “strategic foresight” can be embedded in political action.
The study presents the methodological arsenal, empirical experiences abroad and the expectations gained from surveys in the government apparatus in order to “strengthen the future viability of government work”. The methods of strategic foresight range from scenario planning to “horizon scanning”, which uses sophisticated web techniques to search for future topics, to so-called Delphi surveys of a narrow group of experts. All approaches are aimed at “bundling different perspectives on future topics and developing alternative visions of the future as well as concrete options for action”.
For what purpose? In order to better meet the great challenges of the 21st century, it is necessary to “strengthen the capacity for long-term thinking and acting,” write the ISI scientists. “In view of the increasing interconnectedness, speed and complexity of global systems, such forward-looking and precautionary governance places high demands on the government apparatus.” the consistent practice of horizontal and systemic ways of thinking”.
The traffic light likes to describe itself as a coalition for progress and the future. The problem: If it is supposed to be practical, the implementation stutters. “The linking of strategic foresight with strategic policy formulation and political planning is usually missing,” says the study.
Strategic foresight is already being used in other countries, for example in Canada, Great Britain, Spain and Singapore. In Finland there is, among other things, a “Committee for Future Issues” in Parliament. The MPs, as the ISI interviewers learned from their Finnish interviewees, were very happy to be part of this body. If they get into government positions, they take this knowledge with them. Four Finnish prime ministers previously served on this committee. In contrast to the other bodies, it was always possible to reach agreement across party lines. Future that connects, but only with an institutional basis.
Against this background, the political advisors at Fraunhofer-ISI came up with various suggestions as to how foresight could be established at government headquarters – from the minimal solution of a small, decentralized support unit for the departments to the establishment of a “future laboratory”.
Such an internal government think tank could become the “core of a creative space for thinking and experimenting to strengthen cooperative transformative problem-solving approaches throughout the federal government”. The 20 to 40 employees would be seconded from the ministries for three years. However, they did not keep to themselves, but should work together with “fellows” “who are recruited from science and practice”.
Will the traffic light coalition strengthen its strategic foresight – and if so, how? A government spokesman responded to the inquiry by Tagesspiegel Background Digitization that this has not yet been decided, but is being examined. In principle, the Chancellery sees the study as “confirming that the targeted use of strategic foresight instruments makes sense”.
The Berlin foresight expert Klaus Burmeister welcomes the government’s interest in strategic policy orientation. It is important to the co-author of the future study “Germany D-2030” that long-term political action – beyond departments, parties and legislative periods – “indispensably needs a civil society counterpart”.
A strengthening of the executive in the strategic foresight, in order to successfully manage the social transformation and its multiple system crises, requires “a partner who can act politically and economically independently on an equal footing”. To do this, “civil society must be won over and empowered in its entirety”. This can be organized as a “lab” or as an “alternating future council”. Because foresight needs “testing and discourse as a common social task for the future”.