Challenges in the implementation of the German “Online Access Act” (OAA)

dms – der moderne staat – Zeitschrift für Public Policy, Recht und Management 1-2021: Digital transformation: from hierarchy to network-based collaboration? The case of the German “Online Access Act”

Digital transformation: from hierarchy to network-based collaboration? The case of the German “Online Access Act”

Maike Rackwitz, Thurid Hustedt, Gerhard Hammerschmid

dms – der moderne staat – Zeitschrift für Public Policy, Recht und Management, Issue 1-2021, pp. 101-120



To unlock the full potential of ICT-related public sector innovation and digital transformation, governments must embrace collaborative working structures and leadership, is commonly argued. However, little is known about the dynamics of such collaborations in contexts of hierarchy, silo cultures, and procedural accountability. A widely voiced but empirically insufficiently substantiated claim is that bringing cross-cutting digital endeavours forward requires more lateral, network-based approaches to governance beyond traditional Weberian ideals. We test this claim by shedding light on three distinct challenges (complexity, risk, and power imbalance) encountered when implementing the specific collaborative case of the German Online Access Act (OAA) and by examining how they have been addressed in institutional design and leadership. Our analysis, which combines desk research and semi-structured expert interviews, reveals that flexible, horizontal approaches are on the rise. Taking a closer look, however, vertical coordination continues to serve as complementary means to problem-solving capability.

Keywords: Digitalisation, intergovernmental collaboration, Online Access Act, leadership, institutional Design



Digitale Transformation: Von Hierarchie zu netzwerkbasierter Zusammenarbeit? Das Onlinezugangsgesetz in Deutschland

Dass Regierungen kooperative Arbeitsstrukturen und Führungsformen annehmen müssten, ist eine gängige Forderung, um das Potenzial von IKT-bezogener Innovation und digitaler Transformation im öffentlichen Sektor auszuschöpfen. Bislang ist jedoch wenig über die Dynamik solcher Kooperationen unter Rahmenbedingungen bekannt, die durch Hierarchie, Silokulturen und prozedurale Verantwortlichkeit charakterisiert sind. Auch empirisch nicht ausreichend untermauert ist die weit verbreitete Behauptung, die Förderung bereichsübergreifender, digitaler Bestrebungen erfordere laterale, netzwerkbasierte Governance-Ansätze, die über die traditionellen Weber’schen Ideale hinausgehen. Wir prüfen diese Annahme, indem wir drei spezifische Herausforderungen (Komplexität, Risikowahrnehmung und Machtasymmetrien), die bei der Umsetzung des deutschen Onlinezugangsgesetz (OZG) aufgetreten sind, näher beleuchten, und untersuchen, wie diesen mit Maßnahmen des institutionellen Designs und Leadership begegnet wurde. Unsere Analyse kombiniert Literaturrecherchen mit semi-strukturierten Experteninterviews und zeigt, dass flexible, horizontale Ansätze an Relevanz gewinnen. Gleichzeitig wird jedoch deutlich, dass vertikale Koordination weiterhin als komplementäres Mittel zur Problemlösung Anwendung findet.

Schlagworte: Digitalisierung, Verwaltungszusammenarbeit, Onlinezugangsgesetz, Führung, institutionelles Design


1 Introduction

Digitalisation offers great possibility to improve governmental service delivery by better linking and integrating it towards a need-based holism (Dunleavy, Margetts, Bastow & Tinkler, 2006), however, information and communication technologies (ICT) are not yet being used to their full potential (Weber, 2018). This has been frequently attributed to inadequate coordination, fragmentation, and ‘siloization’ in bureaucracy (Hustedt & Trein, 2020). Collaboration has been widely viewed as a promising means to effectively address these deficiencies because single organisations can no longer implement new solutions on their own given the speed and scope of digitalisation processes (Ferro & Sorrentino, 2010; Ku, Gil-Garcia, & Zhang, 2016). Bringing together diverse actors is said to leverage innovation and in turn may accelerate digital transformation by increasing cognitive variety (Bommert, 2010), adding potential for collective learning and development (Ansell & Gash, 2007), and enhancing technical capacity through the development of similar standards of operation (Chen & Lee, 2018).

The Online Access Act (Onlinezugangsgesetz, hereinafter OAA) has frequently been described as an essential turning point for government digitalisation in Germany, or even as the “largest collaboration effort of German government over the past 20 years” (Punz, 2020). Initiated by the federal government in response to the EU Single Digital Gateway Regulation (SDG) (European Union, 2018), the OAA was approved in August 2017 by both the German Bundestag and the German Bundesrat. The act not only obliges the federal, state, and local governments to provide all their public services online (digital first) but also to interlink these services within a joint gateway (Portalverbund) by 2022. The act also requires states providing certain services to comply with IT components and standards set by the federal government. In return, the states receive additional funding for the necessary investments at state and local government levels. Because this constitutes a major intervention in the federal system, the OAA was accompanied with the constitutional reform of Art. 91c GG (Basic Law, enacted July 2017), which establishes the implementation of OAA as a joint federal and state task (Gemeinschaftsaufgabe) (Martini & Wiesner, 2019).

Consequently, the implementation has called for intensive vertical and horizontal collaborative efforts spanning all government levels. This approach is notably ambitious and unique in light of the strongly legalistic, federalist German public administration, which has been characterised by a tradition of “negative coordination”, the “jointdecision trap” (Scharpf, 1988), and strong commitment to departmental autonomy (Ressortprinzip) (Hustedt & Trein, 2020; NKR, 2018). These institutional factors have resulted in a system aimed at avoiding disturbances and reducing complexity (Scharpf, 1993), while having restricted the German government´s ability to innovate and reform (Hammerschmid & Oprisor, 2016). This has led to a fairly high level of dissatisfaction with the progress of German digitalisation and innovation in public service, the general sluggishness of which is also reflected in Germany’s position in international rankings (e.g. DESI; European Commission, 2020). In view of these structural conditions, the cross-cutting nature of the OAA has ascribed great potential for the sustainable transformation of existing coordination mechanisms, as it may require reidentifying vertical and horizontal interdependencies and reorganising workflows in and between different public entities to provide a consistent (‘joined-up’), across the board digital approach. It thus necessitates actors to transcend their ‘silos’ and to form partnerships within and across organisations (Heuermann, Jürgens, Adelskamp, & Krins, 2018; Luna-Reyes, Gil-Garcia, & Cruz, 2007). However, the very concept of network-based collaboration collides with some cardinal administrative doctrines and traditional bureaucratic coordination (Scharpf, 1993; 2000), which makes the OAA’s implementation a particularly complex and challenging endeavour and, for this research purpose, justifies framing it as an extreme case with the potential to deviate from usual practices (Yin, 2014). In this context, this paper seeks to answer the following questions:

How can such a multi-level, network-based collaboration be established in a federal system characterised by strong coordination requirements? What are the associated challenges and what measures can be taken to effectively address them? Can we observe a shift towards more lateral, network-based approaches, or does the OAA’s implementation process facilitate more traditional patterns of control?

While recent research has mainly focused on the technical feasibility of the policies designed, less is known about the dynamics involved in developing and implementing new digital policies. As it stands, complex public networks such as those required by the OAA challenge traditional patterns of control, especially when multiple organisations are responsible for successful service delivery. Assigning responsibility, as well as measuring and rewarding good performance, are inherently more difficult in network-based structures than in hierarchical principal-agent structures (Klijn & Koppenjan, 2014). Scholars widely agree that for the successful implementation of cross-boundary projects, the public sector has to move beyond traditional principal-agent structures and instead employ more facilitative and flexible institutional responses. This usually requires new ways of working based on consultation, experimentation, and the strengthening of transparency (Crosby, ‘t Hart, & Torfing, 2017; Vangen & Huxham, 2003). In contrast to the overtly positive assessment of collaboration as a driver and source of innovation (Sørensen & Torfing, 2011; Torfing, 2019), more traditional public administration and policy theory puts forward a more sceptical picture of collaboration, noting the predominance of phenomena such as negative coordination or ‘siloization’ in bureaucracy (Mayntz & Scharpf, 1975). Some studies also give reason to believe that ICT-related projects tend to exacerbate ubiquitous government coordination problems and thus serve to strengthen existing organisational patterns of command and control (Cordella & Tempini, 2015; Fountain, 2001). This has led some to question the panacea of collaboration and reiterate the importance of authoritative intervention when managing public networks (Hartley, Sørensen, & Torfing, 2013; Wegrich, 2018). However, solid empirics on proven formal (i. e. structures, procedures, rules) and interpersonal approaches for steering and coordinating ICT-related networks remain scarce. Indeed, while studies on leadership for collaboration are manifold, the scope and impact of leadership in digital environments have been highlighted as a current gap in public administration literature (Roman, Van Wart, Wang, Liu, Kim, & McCarthy, 2018). In addition, research has pointed to the need to better understand the nature and design of digital services at the process level (Mergel, Edelmann, & Haug, 2019).

In this paper, we take up this controversial debate and address this void. We argue that collaboration can be an effective strategy to make a significant contribution to digital transformation, assuming that the appropriate formal and interpersonal public management interventions are taken.

To demonstrate this, we draw on the OAA as an in-depth single case study with analysis based on extensive desk research and six semi-structured expert interviews.

Our analysis particularly takes into consideration the collaborative arrangement driving the OAA’s programme implementation, which is primarily led by the Ministry of Interior, Building and Community (BMI) and the Federal IT Cooperation (FITKO), a joint federal and state government IT agency, and the operative arm of the IT Planning Council (IT-PC). The IT-PC is based on a state treaty on IT and, since its establishment in 2010, has acted as the central body responsible for national IT collaboration. The members of the IT-PC consist of the federal government Chief Information Officer (CIO) and one politically appointed representative from each state. Most states have appointed the state secretary1 responsible for IT as their IT-PC representative. The chair annually rotates between federal and state governments, with the states being represented in alphabetical order. In addition, the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information and three representatives of local government sent by the local authorities’ national associations may attend the council meetings in an advisory capacity.

Our findings shed light on certain challenges that have arisen throughout the process, and on if and how institutional design and leadership, two impactful components of what Jacob Torfing (2019) calls the ‘public management toolbox’, have exerted a positive influence on the event of implementation.

We, therefore, make three overarching contributions to the literature. First, our work provides key insights on the complex governance mechanisms of a highly relevant, yet largely unexplored case, which, although situated in the German context, can be considered pertinent to all EU member states. Second, it explores the interlinkages of a major digital reform and the concept of collaboration. Finally, it puts into perspective the debate about how to shape institutional arenas and how the relevant stakeholders can be motivated to actively engage, share knowledge, and provide procedures for which decision-makers can be held accountable (Ansell & Gash, 2007; Torfing, 2019).

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: We first introduce our conceptual framework and then outline our approach to data collection and analysis. After presenting our empirical results, we conclude with a discussion and recommendations for future research avenues in this field.

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