Germany doesn’t need a Ministry for the Internet

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The fact that Germany is on the verge of Industry 4.0 is now commonplace knowledge, which a serious economic policy paper cannot ignore - regardless of whatever stripe. After the epoch-making inventions of the steam engine, electricity and the computer the fourth industrial revolution is materialising: digitisation. Nevertheless, the political structures have not kept pace with this rapid development.

In the recent German coalition negotiations, the digital agenda was being negotiated for the first time in a separate sub-group, although this, as noted elsewhere, does not match the level of the challenge. Institutional anchoring in the next federal government will be essential for the design of the digital revolution, however. The solution for this is, according to many political observers on hand: a Federal Ministry for the Internet.

Surely: the idea has a certain charm. A minister, at least two secretaries of state and a number of officials. And so one could face the digital transformation- at least at first glance. This perspective ignores, however, that digitisation is a cross-cutting issue. The facets range from digital education via administrative modernization - so-called E-Government – through to the expansion of digital infrastructure. To unite this range in a ministry would be difficult to say the least, not to mention the problems that would arise in the setting of priorities. The digital agenda should therefore be integrated into the activities of each department.

Nonetheless, the issue of digitisation must also be visible in the next German Federal Government, which is not necessarily given by integrating it into the various ministries. A middle ground between the two poles of a Federal Ministry for the Internet and interagency co-ordination is offered by the creation of a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) with cabinet rank. Many companies and now also public bodies, such as the City Administration of New York, have a Chief Digital Officer. Not surprisingly, the Chief Digital Officer is in charge of the design and implementation of the organisation’s digital strategy.

Within the German Federal Government, a Chief Digital Officer would coordinate the digital agenda between departments, promote the digitisation of public services and, not least, represent the issue to the public. It may be objected that such a position would fall between two stools. Therefore, the CDO will need political clout so that he or she does not fall prey to the powerful ministerial bureaucracy. The cabinet rank, i.e. the right to vote at meetings of the federal cabinet is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.

The Chief Digital Officer could win actual influence only through visible projects. At best, these correspond to its cross-departmental role - two suggestions: an open data strategy and a technology cluster competition.

The recent efforts by the German Federal Government to create an open data platform are insufficient. In international comparison, Germany is lagging far behind, the Federal Republic is only in the lower half of the 70-country Open Data Index. At this year's G8 Summit, the federal government committed itself to ensure that by default all public data is open and easily accessible. This will be further clarified in a national open data action plan. A Chief Digital Officer could develop and execute an action plan jointly with the ministries.

Secondly, digitisation offers huge opportunities for education and research. At the same time, the medium-term shows a lack of well-trained professionals in the STEM subjects. In 2010, the City of New York launched the so called Applied Sciences NYC competition. Universities and research institutions from around the world were invited to submit concepts for an applied sciences campus in NYC. The successful applications won city-owned land, a seed investment and administrative support. The incoming German Federal Government could initiate a similar competition under the leadership of the Chief Digital Officer. For instance, the CDO could award funding to technology clusters that deal with digitisation and another crucial issues, such as resource efficiency or ageing societies. An international competition modelled after New York City is conceivable but also a national initiative, in which the German Länder compete for funding.

Of course, the digital agenda comprises more than these two projects. However, they might help as flagship projects for a Chief Digital Officer so that the digital transformation finally arrives at the centre of federal policy.

This article originally appeared in the German Huffington post.