Tuesday 15 November 2022

Turning around a tanker: Digitalisation of services in Europe’s biggest economy


I saw this article by Anke Domscheit-Berg this morning on the ongoing (if glacial) efforts to achieve “Verwaltungsdigitalisierung”  (digitalisation of public services) in Germany and it got me thinking about all the experiences I’ve had since moving here and my absolute disbelief that the biggest economy in Europe still manages to function for people in the digital age.


For those who don’t know this yet, I’m a displaced Kraut, who spent much of her adult life in the UK. As such I was conditioned to see as “normal” whatever the UK does about anything, including digitalisation. This may have clouded my judgement somewhat, so take my musings with a pinch of salt. But here goes.

Digitalisation: How important is the user experience?


Now there are a lot of jokes going around in the UK about that that reference all the ways in which the various UK government’s efforts at digitalisation of its public services went terribly wrong. Overrunning government IT projects, a certain inertia by, and lack of training of, the people required to operate new systems and budgets that end up being nowhere near the figure the project started with are not a uniquely German problem. They all happened in the UK too. 


And I am not a full proponent of “digitise everything”  approaches, given the way in which we have often bought the convenience afforded by digital services for the price of the indisputable short-term and long-term harm they also cause, particularly, to marginalised communities. But purely by living there, I have become accustomed to being able to do most of my everyday tasks online. And then I moved back home and, boy, now I’m on a steep learning curve.


And what I am learning mostly is that, boy, does convenience count for something when you are forced to deal with agencies that have a certain amount of power over your life and the lives of your loved ones. And boy, has the absence of that convenience affected even my own (white, middle-class, well-educated, privileged) experience of living in Germany again. 


“A fax you say? Let me see…”


In fact, it started before I even moved here, in 2018, when my Germany-dwelling mother fell ill and proceeded, for a couple of years, to go in and out of various hospitals. I was often trying to organise these visits from Scotland and what with data protection concerns (sic!) that usually included me having to identify myself to the relevant people in Germany and provide them with documentation both about my mum’s situation and my own right to act on her behalf. At which point I discovered German health trust’s continued and loving relationship with the fax machine. 


You couldn’t email these documents, you see, because that was unsafe. You had to fax them. And the last fax I had had in my life left it around 2009 when the multi-function HP printer I used for that purpose joined its maker. But no matter, I thought. I work for a big UK university. They will have a fax machine somewhere. Well, actually, they do not.


When I approached our all-seeing all-knowing facilities manager with desperation written on my face, I was fortunate that she liked me and shared with me the secret of a rumour she had heard that a certain stationary shop in the vicinity still had a fax machine in the basement that one could commandeer in exchange for coin. She gave me a map to the hidden treasure, and off I went to send a copy of my power-of-attorney to the doctors on the other side, feeling a little like I had just managed to throw the ring into the fires of Mordor. 


The experience played but a small part in the vast collection of reasons that ultimately persuaded me to move back to Germany in the first place. Doing what I had to do for my mum from the UK was hard, and became only harder during the first year of the pandemic. And the absence of digitalisation in Germany was a major factor in that.


Computer says no…!


Equally, the first year after my return went ok mostly because digitalisation of everything back in the UK was fairly advanced and like most people there, I had long managed to “online do” most things. So running a bank account, credit cards, checking up on my pension and complying with my Uni’s rare requests from 1500 miles away all worked fine. And in Germany I had the postal service at my disposal as well as free access to fax machines. Which only goes to show that as long as you live inside of a culture and work within its norms, things will be fine, right?


Well, they were more or less fine until earlier this year, when my mum’s situation got worse and I ended up giving up the job I had taken on over here to be her full-time carer. The (really rather wonderful) German social security system entitled me to an amount of unemployment benefit that (unlike in the UK) a human being can actually afford to live on for a while. However, in order to get that I had to register as unemployed in the town where I was registered to live. And that was in Bavaria, while I was currently 500km up the road, looking after my mother. 


Despite the fact that the German job centre has a very complex and multi-functional website, I was not able to use it for my purposes because of my inability to verify my identity. 


To to use most online government services as a foreigner in Germany most of us need a so-called eID card, which – you guessed it – you can only get by applying for it in the Bürgerbüro of the town where you are registered. So a couple of weeks went by until I had found a respite care place for my mum, which in turn enabled me to drive South to get my own affairs in order. I lost out on a week’s worth of  

unemployment benefit that I had to cover from my savings. Which I was lucky enough to be able to do, but I am keenly aware that not everybody will be in the same situation.


Rules, rules, rules… and exceptions


Time went on and I am now my mum’s official guardian. Which, in practice, means that I have a lot of dealings with the local court that supervises my activities as well as the benefits agency that will likely pay for most of the cost of the care home she is now in (because another wonderful thing about this country is that, unlike the UK, it actually has an extremely good system for financing social care).


In practice, “a lot of dealings” once again translates into “needing to provide a lot of documents” and here is where I obviously have learned nothing from my travels, because I still haven’t bought myself a printer. In my defence, my life has been a bit if a dumpster fire these last few months, so this was not necessarily a priority. But I will not get away without one because reliance on the postal service still rules the world over here and neither the court nor the benefits agency have an online system where I can safely upload the hundreds of pieces of paper that they want from me. 


The Court informed me that guardianship matters are once again even exempt from the right to send documents by email because of their sensitivity. The benefits agency allows email, but the sheer amount of paperwork they need means that with email attachment storage limits being what they are, this forces me to either send endless numbers of emails. 

I once tried to cheat the system by shouting down my inner infosec critic and uploading them to a private cloud provider, sharing the link with the agency. But all that did was to introduce a massive amount of delay into the process because infosec on the other end meant that the employee responsible for my case couldn’t download them and had to get her IT department involved. So now I’m shopping for a printer/scanner.


Non of this is I surmountable, but given how “normal” it used to be for me to just upload stuff to secure (?) government servers, I increasingly resent the energy it costs me. Particularly since non of the options available to me seem in any way more secure and are in most cases more expensive. That has to make a difference to other people too, who do not enjoy my level of economic privilege.


Never knowingly undersold…


My final experience is not actually with a public body but with a credit card provider, but I’m adding it here for entertainment purposes.


I’m a “victim” of the recent decision by the John Lewis Partnership to change the provider that underwrites its credit card. If you are reading this from the UK, you will likely have heard that this meant that they terminated everyone’s contract and required them to apply afresh with the new provider. So, as I am currently sans credit card (which is harder than you think when you live my kind of life), and because I will live here for a while longer, I decided to get a German one.


Fool that I was!


Applying for a card online was easy enough. It is once you are accepted that the fun starts. 


First you need to identify yourself. You do this by downloading an app onto your phone that will hopefully not infect it with spyware and that allows you to upload a picture of yourself together with a picture of your passport into the ether, where it will hopefully be received by the actual credit card provider and not some scammer hell-bent on identity theft (did I mention, I have trust issues?). And then you wait…


In my case it worked and only a few days later I held in my hand a shiny new credit card and the PIN to use it. Easypeasy you will say. But wait! There’s more!


With the shiny new credit card came an “activation form”. A peace of paper that I had to sign and return to the provider in either the pre-paid envelope or by email. The card will not work without being manually activated by the provider after checking that the signature on the form is the same as the signature on your passport (just imagine that being your job).


Reader, I chose email. Sent it off on the same day and then I waited some more. For an acknowledgement that they had received said email, for a confirmation that activation had been successful. Hell, at this point I’d settle for an out of office reply by their chief engineer telling me that he’s currently on holiday in the South of France and he’ll get back to me on his return!


But bupkes! 10 days on now, and my shiny new credit card is still very much both shiny and new, because I have still not been able to use it anywhere. 10 days and counting for something that back in the UK took the time of a phone call to a robot ( and ok, the less said about that, the better. But still!). 

Which is again a very privileged thing to be annoyed about, but l’m mentioning it anyway because it just seems so unnecessary to me to use such a convoluted process for something that could be done in a much more user-friendly way. 



Maybe I’m wrong (won’t you tell me, if I’m coming on too strong?)

Maybe all of these inconveniences are actually worth the security they provide. Maybe the slowness of the German system to adapt to the modern world will ultimately be rewarded because the demanding regulatory framework will stop it from doing things that might turn out to be dangerous mistakes or from creating dependencies that we might all regret. I am genuinely open to that possibility. But could we have both? Security and convenience?


Because what I do know now, is that in many cases the inconvenience that is caused by an absence of digitalisation can affect people’s life nearly as much as badly implemented digitalisation. And I also know that nearly every attempt at digitalisation that I have so far experienced in Germany makes the system somewhere between difficult and impossible to use for either foreigners or anyone with a disability or who is over the age of fifty doesn’t work in tech or tech adjacent. And this matters.


When my mum’s ability to use online banking was all but thwarted by her bank’s clumsy implementation of the new 2FA requirement a few years ago, this meant something to her. Her ability to still look after her own finances despite being all but housebound and cognitively impaired was important for her self-image and her confidence. That one design change by her bank that badly implemented the good intentions of the regulator caused real emotional and psychological harm to at least one elderly lady. She essentially gave up on the internet that day and on everything that that connection to the world had meant to her.


And if the way digitalisation is implemented (or not) has that effect on the likes of her or me, then even without being experts we can surely assume that it has much worse effect on those with a lot less privilege and power. And even for us privileged ones, and even if you are kind of person who doesn’t care about others, there is a good chance that one day, we will all be in a position of less privilege or power, either because we’re getting old, or because we lose our income or because we have to deal with ill health or disability. And that will likely be the day when we will surely regret not resisting design choices that may not disadvantage us now (and that may even benefit us) but that may affect us in the future.


So I agree with Domscheit-Berg. Germany HAS to do better on this. And soon. Because like it or not, technology moves on and there will come a time when the last fax machine has given up the ghost and the last person who knows how to fix it is dead.


I applaud the country for wanting to do this in a super-secure and considered way – if that is indeed what it is trying to do - that (hopefully) secures individual rights of privacy and data protection. But I also see a lot of unwillingness on the part of the old guard to change their ways. And as in the UK, where digitalisation does progress, I also see a lot of systems emerging that are designed to prioritise cost savings rather than secure the rights and improve the experience of both the individuals tasked with delivering public services and those using them.


Tl:dr: when you get to the point where individuals’ rights are equally affected by the absence of digitalisation and by bad design, it’s time for a rethink. Technology should work for us. Not the other way around.

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