#OpenGov in Germany, Quo Vadis?

On Tuesday, we hosted a Japanese governmental delegation at CSC in Berlin. They were on a fact-finding mission to Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London to understand European developments in Open Government. Several of Germany’s deepest thinkers on Open Government willingly shared their thoughts. Here is a quick write-up of how I see the debate evolving in Germany.

A complex crossing of historical forces

Never in the history of mankind has a public management idea spread as quickly as open government. Only three years ago, in January of 2009, President Obama signed the famous memo on open government, focusing on transparency, participation and collaboration, thereby framing the debate on how to implement social media in government for the US and the rest of the world. in 2012 more than 40+ countries on this planet are developing committments to open government: The Open Government Partnership, a multilateral agreement between governments that  (a) develop a high-level Open Government Declaration, (b) a country action plan developed with public consultation; and  (c) commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward. It reminds us of the argument on nationalism in Imagined Communities, the seminal work of Benedict Anderson (1983).
Nationality, nation-ness, and nationalism are cultural artifacts whose creation toward the end of the 18th C was the spontaneous distillation of a complex ”crossing” of discrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became ”modular,” capable of being transplanted to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a variety of political and ideological constellations.
We live in a time, where the idea of open government, the utilization of many-to-many technologies in creating public value has become modular.

The Social Logic of Open Government

Open government builds on the technology of social media, which are  web-based and mobile technologies used to turn one-to-many mass media communication into many-to-many interactive dialogue. Open government takes this idea of many-to-many media and uses it to re-imagine public administration and public policy. As a technologically based idea, it has the potential to be implemented modularly all over the planet. However, as with any universal ideology: different legal systems, different political systems, and different administrative cultures will respond differently to its logic.

Germany as an interesting case

It is worth looking at Germany, if we are interested in how the idea of Open Government spreads around the planet, because Germany is at the same time similar and different to the US. It is a highly developed Western Country with a comparable GDP, and similar levels of internet penetration in society. However, it has a different legal system, where administrative secrets and privacy control play a much bigger role, the political system is still much more determined by party politics, and there is a strong civil service culture in public administration that puts a lot of weight on rule-following and legal consistency. Germany is embedded in the European Union, therefore, directives from Brussels play a major role in defining the agenda. The German CIO council of the federal and state level has just published a first agenda for open government and 2012/2013 will be the years, when Germany will move massively towards open government.


The transparency debate in Germany is defined by two EU-directives, the PSI and INSPIRE. The PSI directive of 2003 is a EU directive that encourages EU member states to make as much public sector information available for re-use as possible – it has led to access to information legislation in German states and on the federal level.  The INSPIRE directive of 2007 lays down a general framework for a Spatial Data Infrastructure for the purposes of European Community environmental policies and policies or activities which may have an impact on the environment. The German governmental response was to develop an institution called the Geoportal for Germany which organizes one-stop access to Geo-data from the municipal, state, and federal level. Both directives have shaped the discourse on transparency in Germany and have led to legal action. The idea of open data has had the biggest impact on the German discourse. The German Open Data Network and the Open Knowledge Foundation have really pushed the issue. They have launched in cooperation with the German interior ministry the first Apps-for-Germany contest in November 2011. Cities like Berlin, Munich, or Bremen have taken the lead on the municipal level. The biggest roadblock are strong privacy laws that have been written in a different situation.


Germany has been influenced by the concept of participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. The concept was originally developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and became fashionable in Germany in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cities like Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin-Lichterfelde, and Erfurt have developed electronically mediated versions of participatory budgeting and have very much shaped the discourse. In 2011 a big railroad station project in Stuttgart has led to social media organized protests that have in the end led to a new party to gain power in that state.


The idea of using social media in public administration is still contested in Germany. Examples are the “Fix-my-street” project of the state of Brandenburg. Cornelius Everding, the CIO of Brandenburg has the vision of not only enabling citizens to point to problems such as potholes or broken street signs, but actually organizing in groups that then take care of the problem: Maerker Brandenburg is only a first instantiation of this idea. Municipal electricity companies are starting to use “2.0-technologies” in streetlight-management, allowing citizens to inform them of non-functioning lamps and a new traffic jam communication system is built on Apps downloaded by several hundred thousand drivers. However, these types of technologies are not yet mainstreamed.


Overall, the logic of many-to-many technologies is becoming part of German public administration and public policy, however, German idiosyncrasies can be ascertained. The combination of strong privacy protection, with a legalistic culture in public administration are the biggest roadblock to all-out open government. However, the professionalism of the German civil service in combination with German “Gründlichkeit” will mean that we will hear more of German open government.
 … what do you think? 

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "Machiavelli.net". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

23. January 2012 by Philipp
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