A member of the German parliament had invited to an open discussion round. It was to be about the digitisation of cities, i.e. Smart Cities. I took part in the discussion because I wanted to deal with topics like digital authorities, intelligent traffic concepts or similar things. But it soon turned out that most of the participants were more interested in how to prevent rents from rising due to digitisation. A concrete example was the installation of SmartHome systems in rented flats, which would count as modernisation.
On the sidelines, the topic of digitisation was also discussed and I advocated that the Federal Government should focus more on this issue and centralise it. The easiest way to do this would be through a Minister for Digitisation. There was a strong headwind, especially from the mostly older party members present. Digitalisation was already a prioritised topic and a separate ministry would have too much power.
Here I saw once again that many people are afraid of technology, which they sometimes do not understand, and tend to see the negative sides. On the other hand, they are afraid that these technologies could have even more influence.
I will stick to my position: there must be a Minister for Digital in the next federal government. Of course, I know that we now have a Minister of State and that the issue is therefore very close to the Chancellor. But the powers are limited. You can only coordinate and you can hardly decide anything yourself. And there is no separate budget for this, as it is distributed among the other ministries. Of course, it is still possible to set priorities, but it is difficult to decide on the direction to take. They always have to be coordinated with the other ministries.
Is a Minister of Digitisation too powerful?
A counter-argument is that such a ministry would interfere too much in the affairs of other ministries. This was also the case with the Ministry of Environment. It was set up to pool competencies (and to fight the Chernobyl shock and the emergence of the Greens). For it was clear that too many sub-areas were scattered so that they were treated rather shabbily. With the establishment of the ministry, it was emphasised that it was an important issue. The parallels to digitisation are obvious.
The argument that a Minister for Digitisation would be too powerful in a federal cabinet cannot be entirely dismissed. But it would better reflect the world as it exists. Digitisation has now spread to virtually every area of life. The challenges in terms of work, data protection and ethical issues are enormous. Digitisation is only a marginal phenomenon.
Take the example of artificial intelligence: This topic is mainly hung up in the Ministry of Education. But then it is more about research. Topics such as the legal side or consumer protection are of course less highlighted here. The fact that the homepages also show that AI is not a focal point shows its priorities. This, with all its opportunities and risks, will become increasingly important in the coming years. And then we will have to decide on a strategy for how we want to deal with it.
The Minister as the bridge-builder
At the same time, a Minister for Digitisation would provide an opportunity to bring the opportunities of digitisation closer to people. He or she could intervene in many areas to regulate and promote other issues, thus showing that citizens’ concerns would be taken seriously. And he or she could independently promote issues and thus also challenge the other ministries. An agency, a minister of state or similar can only make proposals. But the design would still be up to the individual ministries and their priorities have shown, at least in the past, that the people responsible have neither distinguished themselves with digital topics nor really want to deal with them.