Germany’s DigitalService is helping the German government catch up with digital-ready legislation

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

Though Germany lags on digital government, Stephanie Kaiser, Chief Product Officer, shares how Germany’s DigitalService is supporting government reform with digital-ready legislation, user-centred software development and ushering in new ways of working.

Stephanie Kaiser (centre), Chief Product Officer at Germany's DigitalService, shares with GovInsider how the young team is driving change. Image: DigitalService

This story is part of GovInsider's new Digital Government initiative, which aims to feature stories from digital government agencies around the world. Click here to view our interactive map and reach out to editorial@govinsider.asia if you wish to contribute a piece.

 

“We are not even four years old. I have a daughter exactly as old as the DigitalService!” shares Stephanie Kaiser, Chief Product Officer at DigitalService, a federal digitalisation agency within Germany’s government.  

 

Unlike other countries with a national digitalisation agency that oversees digital transformation, Germany has a range of agencies that are responsible for a variety of domains, she says. 

 

On a day-to-day basis, DigitalService develops and operates digital applications for the state. However, the country’s complex digital government landscape means that the agency is still crafting its own identity and role, she tells GovInsider – and is taking steps to reform digital government on a national scale. 

 

Subscribe to the GovInsider Bulletin for the latest public sector and innovation updates.

Not an early mover 

 

Kaiser notes that Germany is not an “early mover” when it comes to digital government.  

Germany's complex digital government landscape is a sight to behold. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Part of this is a result of a fragmented digital landscape within the Government, says Kaiser. There are over 100 agencies across federal, state, and local jurisdictions working towards the goal of an efficient, effective digital government, she explains.


DigitalService aims to help reduce duplicated work across the country’s 16 states and develop software that all states can adopt.  

 

“There’s so many people doing the same thing, but in different areas with different methods on different levels," she says.

 

While some attribute Germany’s “digital shyness” to high data protection concerns, Kaiser notes that recent survey results show that the majority of German citizens understand the value of digital government. Rather, the root issue is the diffusion of responsibilities across the federal system. 

 

It is the Government’s duty to clearly explain how citizen data is being used and secured, adds Kaiser.

 

DigitalService draws inspiration from other countries dealing with the challenges of driving digital government efforts within federal systems, such as the United States and Canada. 

The lead domino: applying product thinking to digital legislation 

 

In recent years, the agency has taken up the role of applying methodologies like iterative development and user-centred service design to support the creation of nationwide digital government legislation, says Kaiser. 

 

In 2022, the team realised that though they could iterate products repeatedly to improve user experience, they also needed to review the underlying systems and regulations. 

Germany's DigitalService team sought to improve digital government efforts by focusing on digital-ready regulations. Image: DigitalService
 

“If the regulation is not digital-ready, then we can build interface layer after interface layer, but it doesn't really change the big picture,” she explains. The team began working with the Ministry of Interior to support ministries in developing digital-ready legislations – what she calls the “lead domino” for user-centred digital services. 

 

“We used the ways of working we are used to – the user-centred way. We went into the ministries, tried to understand how legislators work, how they actually build up the regulations, and identified the right moments to consider the digital implementation of their law-to-be.” 

 

The team thus developed Digitalcheck, a set of processes, methods, and skills that ministries must use when developing legislation. Digitalcheck ensures that every new law accounts for the use of digital technology and that legislators consider digital applications “right from the start” of the process.  

 

For example, instead of requesting citizens to fill in their data for every application, lawmakers can legislate that agencies draw on data already held by other government offices to free up time for citizens. 

Start with a problem, one project at a time 

 

Beyond their policy redesign efforts, DigitalService also helps ministries solve individual problems through a user-centred and agile product approach, Kaiser shares. 

 

Once a problem has been clearly defined, DigitalService helps ministries verify the extent of the problem with users, develop minimum viable products, and work with test-users to identify pitfalls and iteratively improve them. 

DigitalService staff conducting user feedback out and about in Berlin. Image: DigitalService

Once new services are live, product teams examine usage data and qualitative user feedback to deliver updates – several times a week or even a day. This continuous delivery approach is “the basis” for delivering user-centric government services, she says. 

 

In 2022, the agency worked with the German Ministry of Finance to roll out a property tax system when property laws changed. The team created a simple user flow and enabled just under a million declarations to be filed online. They also tapped on usage data to identify gaps and improve user flow, she explains. 

 

Kaiser is proud of a parental allowance calculator the team iteratively improves with the Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The tool aims to help young parents understand the allowance they are eligible for and the different ways parents can split care work. 

 

The team also open-sources their software – “public money should end up in public code,” she shares. 

Bringing tech talent into government 

 

The team seeks to attract more tech talent to the Government, having started off as the Tech4Germany fellowship in 2018, followed by the Work4Germany fellowship just one year later. The fellowships match tech and transformation experts from the private sector with counterparts in ministries to jointly work on specific projects. 

 
Germany's DigitalService aims to attract tech talent to reshape digital government culture. Image: DigitalService

The success of the fellowship demonstrated that such skills were critical for the public sector, and that they needed to attract and retain such talent through a new digital service. 

 

“To attract tech talent for the long term, you need a specific environment and company culture.” 

 

“We were looking for people who want to use their experience to create better government services for users,” she says. By attracting talent with industry experience, the team sought to move away from more traditional approaches to development and towards user-centred iterative development. 

 

Part of setting up DigitalService included developing salary schemes and career paths outside of the “rigid” public-sector recruitment and salary development systems. Now, the team consists of 150 people with IT, design, product development and transformation skills. 

 

Looking ahead, she shares that the team is looking at supporting a more consistent approach to cloud-first deployment in Germany’s public sector and integrating technologies like AI into the “virtual toolbox” that the DigitalService team can tap on when tackling new projects. 

 

To read more about DigitalService’s projects, explore their blog here