Chancellor Merkel’s digital gurus

Katrin Suder will chair the newly established Digital Council in order to speed up Germany's digitization efforts. [EPA/CLEMENS BILAN]

In Germany, a ten-member committee takes up its work to speed up the country’s digitisation efforts and ask uncomfortable questions, EURACTIV Germany‘s media partner “Der Tagesspiegel” reports.

Wearing white sneakers with black jeans, the 46-year-old Katrin Suder looks more like she works in a communal office in Berlin than the Chancellery, where she headed to chair the Digital Council for the first time on Wednesday (22 August).

The ten-member body is meant to support the German government in accelerating the digital transformation – which is urgently needed, as Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) knows.

Germany lags behind in digital areas

In many areas, such as broadband expansion, digital administration and education or private investment in start-ups, Germany lags behind European and international standards. The committee is meant to shake a leg and draft concrete proposals for action.

“I am convinced that we can only keep up our governmental action if we are also looking for external advice,” Merkel said in her weekly video message. The experts should “drive” the government and ask “uncomfortable questions”.

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Six men and four women are members of the council, which meets together with Merkel and the ministers for the first time after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting. The council is scheduled to meet at least twice a year in the future – although this will be more difficult given its international make-up.

Members work voluntarily

From New York, for example, comes law professor Beth Simone Noveck, who was responsible for digitisation in the White House under President Barack Obama.

The council also includes: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Oxford professor for Internet Governance and Regulation; Urs Gasser, director of the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Ada Pellert, Rector of the University of Hagen; Peter Parycek, head of the Competence Center Public IT at the Fraunhofer FOKUS Institute; scientist Andreas Weigend and the three entrepreneurs and founders – Ijad Madisch (Researchgate), Stephanie Kaiser (Heartbeat Labs) and Hans-Christian Boos (Arago).

The members work voluntarily, travel expenses are paid.

Above all, the committee is meant to deal with four central topics: the future of the working world, handling of data, the start-up scene, and new opportunities for participation. The cross-cutting issue is the question of how digitalisation affects culture and society.

It is also desirable to have an exchange with individual ministries, some of which maintain their own digital units. The Council will be in office until the end of the legislative term – but it will be hard to measure how successful it has been.

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With Suder as chairwoman, however, there is an experienced consultant at the top. A former director at McKinsey, in 2014 she became a state secretary in the German Ministry of Defence, where she was to reform the breakdown-plagued armaments procurement.

She surprisingly left in spring on the grounds of wanting to have more time for the family.

FDP and Greens criticise the body

Government opposition has been quick to criticise the formation of the council. “A government that still needs tuition in digitisation in 2018 is not just a tragedy. Rather, it disqualifies itself by its own ignorance,” said Manuel Höferlin, digital policy spokesman for the liberal FDP party.

According to Höferlin, it is to be feared that the creation of a Digital Council will be “just another diversionary tactic intended to fool the public into believing that the digitisation of the country would be framed at full speed”.

To tackle the digital transformation “with a clear plan and clear responsibilities, we finally need a leading and coordinating digital ministry”.

The Greens also think rather poorly of the council:

“The establishment of ever new advisory boards does not increase my confidence in the ability of this government,” Anna Christmann, the Greens’ innovation policy spokeswoman, told the Tagesspiegel. In many areas of digital policies there is “no problem of knowledge, but a problem of implementation”, she said.

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