It now has more than 18 million downloads in Google and Apple app stores to help simplify contact tracking and break down chains of infection: the official Corona alert. Instead of being developed by its own technology experts, the federal government had to rely on the private sector for programming. The contract was transferred to SAP and Telekom’s subsidiary T-Systems in early May.
It should improve in the future. The government is building its own small technological expedition, which can develop software itself. After many months of delays, the project is now in the starting blocks. Following approval by the Federal Ministry of Finance, a purchase agreement was signed on Tuesday for “DigitalService4Germany” – what the new unit should be called. This was confirmed by a government spokesman at the expert briefing “Tagesspiegel Background Digitalization & KI”.
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The crisis in Corona has clarified the need
Chancellor Helge Braun (CDU) chief is pleased that it can begin now. “Especially during the corona crisis, we have seen how urgent there is sometimes the need for user-friendly digital solutions that need to be met competently and quickly,” says the CDU politician. Braun is also a patron of the Tech4Germany and Work4Germany technology scholarship programs, which gave rise to the digital service. Since 2018, young “technology talent” for the federal government has been working on prototypes and creating functional mentor-led websites and applications for three to six months. The programs will remain part of the new GmbH, the digital service itself will have up to 100 employees in the future.
Although the new digital service comes too late for the Corona alert application, the creators already have many ideas about which projects could help contain the virus. For example, there was talk with the Ministry of Health about what is now needed to improve the digital setup of health authorities. This is exactly how it could work in the future: The Independent Chancellery GmbH should be able to develop needs-based projects for federal ministries and subordinate bodies. As an in-house company, teams can develop prototypes to ready-made applications in a short time and without bureaucratic tenders.
Other countries already have a digital service
The model is the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK, which has 800 employees. Many other countries already have units that work with different specializations. The Digital Federal Government Council has called on Germany to follow suit.
The purchase price of the former 4Germany UG, now DigitalService4Germany GmbH, was a median five-digit amount. Prior to the purchase, co-founder Christina Lang emphasized that it was not about money, but rather “making permanent changes.” Further budget planning for the coming years envisages a high single-digit million for the digital service, mostly with salaries and other fixed costs to be financed.
Hopes for digital services are high – because demand is huge. But it is also about transferring IT skills to administration. For Chancellor Helge Braun, he is “the best” when buying the new Bundes-GmbH: “Capacity building and knowledge transfer in administration are part of it, because we work on the product together with the administration.”
Agility requirements had to be negotiated
The decisive factor for the success of the project is likely to be how agile the teams can end up – whether the digital service can start as a “motorboat” or a “tanker”, as the government’s spokesman for the Tagesspiegel said. That is why it was important for those responsible at 4Germany and in the Chancellery that the new GmbH could deploy its employees flexibly – as needed and independently of the economic cycle, also in a short time and sometimes for a limited time. The management, which includes Lang and former technology investor Philippe Möser, wants to introduce a “performance culture” to the company. It should be quite difficult in the strict TVöD corset.
The Ministry of Finance, which was allowed to comment on the framework conditions of the personnel policy of the new GmbH, usually insists that salary structures and public service planning specifications be used in the case of federal investments. The only way to ensure that no excessive costs are incurred is through the Olaf Scholz House (SPD) line. However, with the new digital service, the finance minister is closing his eyes: The necessary flexibility should now be available at least “for those involved in creating software products in the new digital service”, such as UX developers and designers, the chancellor confirms. Especially for these jobs, the competition in the labor market is huge.
The digital service competes with start-ups and other technology companies
The acquisition of the project and staff should now take place quickly. We are looking for enthusiasts for administrative digitization with the appropriate skills; formal titles should not be required. The management already employs team 10 and more job advertisements will be published soon. Boss Lang is “absolutely convinced” that they will find good and motivated people. The goal is to offer a “great overall package”, hoping to be an attractive employer compared to start-ups and technology companies. “People have a real interest,” says Möser, the new CEO and former chief technology officer of Berlin-based game developer Wooga. “The first operational activities can probably start in the autumn,” a government spokesman said. However, they want to “start small to quickly learn how teams can develop administration software using an agile approach.”
Starting small, but at the same time proving yourself quickly, should be a challenge for the project. While there are almost no critics of the new unit yet – on the contrary, many people in administration praise Tech4Germany and the Work4Germany program – there are doubts again and again about how the new innovation unit will eventually work centrally. In parallel with the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the “Digital Innovation Team” project group is working to create an e-government unit for the federal government. In addition, the so-called Federal IT Cooperation (FITKO) is intended to support national standards in the public sector.
Where the digital service will be located and with what other innovation teams in the federal administration will be decided later – then there may already be a digital ministry of its own.