Headline: Putting the Future into Politics: The Case for More Innovation in Government Operations

Ziehen die Bundesministerien an einem Strang? Finanzminister Olaf Scholz, Kanzlerin Angela Merkel und Kanzleramtschef Helge Braun bei der ersten Kabinettssitzung der neuen Bundesregierung nach den Wahlen 2017.
Ziehen die Bundesministerien an einem Strang? Finanzminister Olaf Scholz, Kanzlerin Angela Merkel und Kanzleramtschef Helge Braun bei der ersten Kabinettssitzung der neuen Bundesregierung nach den Wahlen 2017. Thomas Grabka/laif

The new German government got down to work in April 2018 and it will be interesting to see how it goes about tackling the big future questions of our time. Together with the Chancellery, the ministries have a huge responsibility to manage and shape the far-reaching technological and societal changes currently under way.

To ensure that complex issues like digitalisation, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and the crises of democracy, Europe, and fundamental values aren’t simply compartmentalised in isolated government departments or addressed in a one-dimensional, reactive or shortsighted way, innovative organisational forms for dealing with problems are required – particularly when it comes to interministerial cooperation. Because now more than ever, we need to think about the kind of ‘operating system’ that is appropriate for governing in the twenty-first century. We’d like to make three concrete proposals here.

The first sentence of the Coalition Agreement of March 2018 reads “We are living through new political times with many different challenges for Germany – both domestically and on the international stage.” For many, digitalisation is the most pressing challenge in the new legislative period. Up to now, responsibility for digitalisation has been spread too thinly across several ministries. This was a central criticism raised in discussions around the last election, with some people calling for the establishment of a Ministry for Digitalisation. Yet such a ministry would have had to take on many key areas of other government departments – from industrial, labour, and consumer affairs to urban development, security, education and cultural policy. Instead, the Coalition Agreement now proposes a host of government commissions representing science and society in this area – but who is supposed to collate all the findings and guarantee that appropriate policies are implemented? Playing on the German word for digitalisation, Ulrich Schäfer wrote in the online edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung (6.03.2018) that what we really need is a “Digitalregierung”, a government for digitalisation.

The most obvious sign of action by the coalition in this area is the appointment of a Minister of State for Digitalisation. To stick to the IT jargon, that is certainly an upgrade to the Federal Government, but since the structure and portfolios of the individual ministries – the hardware and operating system of governing – will remain largely unaffected, it amounts to no more than maintenance and license renewal.  

The executive as a political operating system

This discussion shows that the way in which ministries cooperate is particularly important in the case of key future questions and the challenges they present for political action. The executive forms a large part of the political operating system and is responsible for defining, processing and solving problems. Yet discussions of an appropriate operating system for the twenty-first century still come to nothing in the everyday business of politics – the calls for ministries for energy, infrastructure and migration are a case in point.

Many of the challenges our society faces are highly complex – each on their own and in the aggregate – not least when they have to be mastered at a time characterised by growing fears of change, increasing social division, and populist tendencies. Developments in information technology are bringing about radical changes in our societies. The challenges they pose are complex because short-, medium, and long-term effects are intertwined; local, national, and global influences overlap; and the social, economic, technological and ecological aspects of both problems and solutions are all interconnected. So entire mobility, nutrition and education systems are up for renegotiation, no longer just fuels, pesticides and learning materials.

Complexity demands a spirit of innovation and cooperation

What does that mean for the organisation of modern political control systems, if they are to deal with this complexity? As well as being the architects of a transformation of the political system, ministries are potentially affected by it. In addition to license renewals and upgrades, there is now an urgent need to realign the entire operating system. In future, politics and administration will have to cooperate differently in order to develop sustainable, systemic approaches to the challenges ahead. That’s not just because complex problems, by their very nature, can never be solved once and for all – they change in the process of being solved by actors with conflicting perspectives, with the actors themselves also changing over time, as well as the strategies they employ.

The structure of the German ministerial administration is not appropriate to the complex challenges of the twenty-first century. A relic of the nineteenth century, it remains indebted to the Prussian principle of the independence of each ministry, which becomes something to cling to in the face of complexity and unclear responsibilities, a binary code that determines everything and makes complex dynamics appear manageable even 150 years after Bismarck.

Three building blocks for innovation

A first building block of a more modern way of dealing with complexity in politics and administration would be concerted action on the part of the Federal Government’s advisory boards, academies and foundations, a kind of science-policy slam. As advisors to the government, the aforementioned government agencies provide vital impetus for change – yet they tend to act independently of one another in neatly defined policy areas, completely focussed on the expectations and perspective of the particular ministry they serve. Wouldn’t it be more effective, more efficient and simply more productive to think holistically from the outset? Wouldn’t it make more sense for health and security experts, economic, consumer and educational advisory boards, and political foundations to get to grips as a collective with the dynamics of artificial intelligence? By joining forces, they could foster a broader, informed public debate as well as providing the government with more forceful – and thus more convincing – arguments for taking specific courses of action. In a successful premiere with great potential for more integrated knowledge and action, the Science Platform Sustainability 2030 recently brought together ten of the Federal Government’s scientific advisory boards for a joint discussion of future challenges for politics, society and scientific policy advice.

In other countries, it’s commonplace to draw on creative approaches like future commissions, innovation labs, hubs and platforms in the search for a new operating system for governing. And the OECD collects good examples of such innovation practices in the public sector. But they have yet to become established in Germany. Governance in this country still has a lot of catching up to do and needs to risk more experiments.

So a second building block would be the establishment of an internal Government Innovation Lab to provide ideas and impetus for novel forms of coordination. It would be tasked with initiating procedures within the ministries for things like strategic forecasting of future developments, simulation games on possible conflict situations and decision scenarios, joint fact-finding, or the development of prototypes of possible solutions. How can different future simulations be systematically developed and played out with civil servants from the ministries of the environment, justice, construction, economics, transport and labour in order to identify the economic, social and democratic opportunities and risks of, for example, post-fossil urban development? A Government Innovation Lab would foster cross-ministerial exchange and cooperation to gain a better understanding of complex challenges from different perspectives and find ways of dealing with them jointly.

The first two building blocks address something that was sorely needed – and for many people lacking – in the election campaign and subsequent exploratory talks: debates on the future that do not shy away from naming the big, unresolved problems, and the formulation of a guiding principle for the next four years and beyond as a framework for these debates. The metaphor of a “new departure for Europe” brought into play by the coalition points in the right direction. But otherwise, the only evidence of a guiding principle for governing in an age of global resource, capital and migration flows is found in the Coalition Agreement’s passing reference to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a global contract for the future.

The third building block for a more coherent, long-term and planetary responsible politics would therefore be the systematic and nuanced expansion of the federal government’s Sustainability Strategy to take account of global interactions. On their own, Building blocks 1 and 2, as administrative and scientific cooperation processes, could contribute a great deal to societal dialogues and negotiations with a view to sector-specific sustainability strategies via value chains, cascade use, and material cycles (for example in the mobility, food and financial sectors). However, to be viable, the sustainability strategy needs to be correlated with important areas of the economy and life; it should be globally responsible and specifically geared to the principles and 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda.

To sum up, the structures and work processes of the Federal Government need to open up to new ways of operating and a systematic exploration of future developments. The 2013 Coalition Agreement foresaw an “interdepartmental strategy for effective and forward-looking governance”, but there is little evidence that such a strategy was ever pursued. The new department for “Political Planning, Innovation and Digital Policy” in the Federal Chancellery is now an attempt to foster the kind of interdepartmental coordination that is so urgently required – a further upgrade with potential.

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