Hamann Distributed

Making mistakes at scale so you don't have to.

The Horrifying State of eGovernment in Germany

Working and living in Berlin, one of the current major hubs for startups and innovation in Europe, I’m used to teams of a handful of people building globally scaling platforms in just a handful of weeks with a user experience so great that I’m almost taking it for granted.

A few weeks ago, I took a forced detour from the bubble.

Backstory: I used to freelance for smaller IT and media design gigs with my own company, but since starting to work full time in a startup, there wasn’t much more time to do so. Because I knew German bureaucracy is quite strict on freelancers not generating profit for years in a row, I just wanted to officially dismantle my company.

I already knew I didn’t want to show up in person anymore, as the respective administrative office is far away and the opening hours are plain hostile to any working person. So I googled my way around and saw that there’s a standard form you can download, fill out and send by snail mail, together with some copies of your documents. But hey – they were also offering the “online treatment of the service”!

Being a little too curious and naïve, I clicked on the link and followed down the rabbit hole…

2013-05-26, 23:10 CET:

After finding the well-hidden registration link after five paragraphs of legalese and stilted introduction, I’m able to register my first eGovernment account at EU-DLR. Yay. At least they’re confirming my mail address, so I’m continuing by clicking the link in the mail.

I’m greeted by a notification that tells me I’m “accessing the site out of business hours”.

Wait. What!?

They’re serious. Basically everything out of standard business hours is defined by them as a “(possible) maintenance window”. If the server crashes, it means basically waiting till someone fixes it only the next day. (How often it actually crashed, I found out over the next days and weeks)

I’m giving up for today.

2013-05-27, 19:30 CET:

Trying to log in again. The system immediately logs me out. Did I do a mistake? I’m trying again, with the same result. Switching from Firefox to Chrome. Same thing. Maybe I should really “try Internet Explorer” as suggested? If only it wasn’t for the fact that it’s 2013, I’m on OS X and Microsoft made the world a better place in 2005 already by discontinuing IE for Mac.

Before considering to use my girlfriend’s Windows computer, I’m trying Safari. It seems to work now.

I’m “opening my first case”.

Think of everything you know about usability and user flow – and then try to imagine a site that has been specifically crafted to ignore every single best practice in the field.

The workflow is a seemingly never ending series of small forms that each have a “next” button. Every click on next lets me wait almost one minute before continuing. Somewhere in the middle of the 5th form, after 2 minutes I’m getting back a raw, unfiltered, unstyled “500 Internal Server Error”. In English, that is. Fortunately I’m only half as confused as the average German business owner using this “service”.

I can’t reenter the site. Giving up again for today.

2013-05-28

I’m discovering that there is no way to access “my cases” by logging into the site normally. After the standard login, there’s no way for me to do anything else but read the FAQ. Only by clicking the link in the activation mail or typing in the correct URL, I’m able to enter “my case”.

Insert coin and try again.

This time, it’s only taking 10 seconds after each next. In one huge form, I need to enter all my data. Address, Phone number and so on. Finally, the last step in the workflow appears:

I’m able to download the very form I should have sent by snail mail from the beginning – and of course, it’s NOT even prefilled with all the information that I just entered.

Exhausted, I’m following the instruction, printing it out, signing it, scanning it into a PDF with the standard OS X Preview app and uploading it to the “my case” page.

It’s a pattern that’s constantly reoccuring: Instead of taking the opportunity and simplifying online access for citizens and business owners, the process has been designed to resemble the Government’s paper workflow as closely as possible, with all the bells and whistles on top that they think they need for “secure” interaction. Hell, they’re even still writing all about mailings, forms and documents.

2013-06-01:

I’m getting a ticket number manually assigned. Whew – something’s moving.

2013-06-04:

I’m getting a message by the system: “There’s a problem with your case”. After only 10 tries, I’m successfully logged back in again and see that apparently they can’t read my document. Weird. I’m reuploading the PDF.

2013-06-08:

Same thing: They can’t read my form. Again. Apparently ISO standardized and validated PDF files are way too unstandard to be read by government agencies. To top it off, when I’m clicking the link to my uploaded and signed form in the interface, I’m actually seeing the correct PDF document in my browser. How can’t they not see or access it? This is just frustrating. Dumb actually. I’m done here.

2013-07-24:

“Your case was closed by not answering our request”. Yeah, whatever. Total time clocked so far: way more than 3 business hours. I wish this was billable.

2013-07-29:

I’ve had enough. I’m doing what I should have been doing all along. Printing out the business dismantling form from the very first page and a copy of my ID, signing and stamping it and sending it by snail mail. Total time clocked: 10 minutes, 55 cent postage.

Sidenote: This could have been for free with signed e-mail as well. I even have the new German “electronic” ID with signature chip and a reader (introduced in 2010), uniquely identifing me as a German citizen with full cryptographic proof.

However, there’s nobody to send it to: The government agency still can’t receive signed mails “for technical reasons”.

Never would have thought I’d ever think of sending snail mail as easier than handling my business online.

2013-08-27

Having long forgotten about this major disappointment, that day I’m coming home and there’s registered mail in my postbox: An “Androhungsbescheid” (literally: “Threatening Notification”), telling me that if I don’t re-upload the PDF, I’m subject to a penalty payment of 500€.

Seriously?

You can’t read the most standardized document format on the planet, you provide me an interface whose only purpose is to steal my time, I’m sending you everything by mail, you can’t even find it and put the files on my case – and now you’re even threatening me?

I’ve lost it. Okay, so what to do now? The two times that companies actually made me lose my composure by extreme amounts of insolence, I immediately dealt with their press department by issuing a credible threat of massive public shaming, leveraging my former media agency. Up to now, I’ve always won – and more.

This time it’s hopeless. Researching half a night, I’m realizing that there’s simply nobody to complain to. There’s a single method of complaint against people or actions of the German government, called “Dienstaufsichtsbeschwerde” (disciplinary complaint) that’s commonly taught to law practitioners as “formlos, fristlos, fruchtlos” (informally, without notice and pointless). Everyone can write one and exactly nothing will happen. There’s just a giant moloch that’s refusing to move.

This time I’ll just play along, reopening my case and reuploading the PDF in every image format that has ever been invented from BMP to DICOM in the hope of being accepted – and only leave this blog post as an exhausted note of protest to someone.

I’m an IT guy with some pride and attitude left. Whoever designed this system’s UX, technical base and business processes would immediately have been fired from any of the companies I’ve ever worked for due to total incompetence. Who does things like this to humanity? How much do they get paid? Where’s the accountability and common sense gone in projects like this?

I’m a loss of words. There’s only so much for me to say:

“Dear German government. The best way to grow and keep the economy is to not utterly frustrate and stand in the way of the people who actually grow and keep the economy.”

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