A Story of German Digital Incompetency

I love living in Germany and I am absolutely aware that this is a great privilege. At the same time, I witness topics this country obviously doesn’t comprehend at all, like computers and the internet, a.k.a. digitalism. So, let me tell you a story about German digital incompetence.

A year before Corona, I decided to commute via train and Brompton, the famous folding bike. The pandemic strengthened this change. One of the two cars available to the family was only gathering dust, so we decided to replace one of them with a premium electric cargo bike. The goal was to be mobile as before, but without burning gas.

In the process of researching bikes, I found out that my state, Niedersachsen, was offering a funding for people buying cargo bikes. This would mean a very welcomed bonus of €800 to finance the quite expensive bike I was planning to buy for €6.500. With this donation in mind, I decided for one of the best but also most expensive electric cargo bikes you can buy: A Riese Müller Multicharger with every add-on you can buy. The company is located in Darmstadt, Germany, where most of the assembly is taking place. They also support their employees socially and are ecologically aware. Because of this, the price is higher than a mass-produced vehicle from China. It was important to me to support the German manufacturers and the environment. I am thrilled with Riese Müller and my bike. I am recommending it to anyone who would hear it.

Here is where the fuck-up of digital “German Engineering” begins.

After deciding to buy my bike and before ordering it, I enlisted in the bonus program of the state of Niedersachsen. A bank I don’t dare to name here manages this program and implemented a website for it. This, I assume, should make the management of the thousands of applicants for this bonus program easier. The UI was straight out of 1995, think of mouse-grey buttons and panels, and it was very hard to even understand the words and concepts used. It was only available via browser, there was no app. They mapped their paper-based, bureaucratic and old-schooled process into the digital world, one to one. There was a “Posteingang”, an inbox, where each of the “Anträge”, applications, were listed. For a user creating multiple of those applications, this would make sense. For me, only wanting to take part in the program to get my €800 for helping to save the environment and support German manufacturers, it was just confusing. Anyway, I managed to fight the German Gummibaum in the digital office and create my application in January or February 2022. The website would not let me review the complete history of this process, so I have to guess this date from memory. Besides filling out the form on the website, I had to send a signed paper via physical mail. My application would now have to wait for someone to look at all the documents and approve my application. Only then would I be allowed to actually buy the bike.

And the time passed.

Spring came, and while everyone was riding their bikes, happily, I was not.

I realised that with the current problems of supply chains, even when I ordered right then and there, I would not get my bike until the summer was over. At that time, I really hated driving my car because I knew the alternative could be so much better.

So, on the 27th of May 2022, I ordered the bike, which arrived only a couple of weeks after. It was wonderful! My loyal but outdated gas-burning car was only used by my wife, and we sold her car. Even when fall came, the powerful electric motor pushed me through wind and rain and it was the best of fun to ride that monster of a bike.

Nearly one year later, on the 6th of December 2022, I finally got the approval that I could buy my bike now. The famous “Projektbeginn” was finally there! Problem was, that I already ordered my bike. Anyway, I went on sending pictures of it and the original receipt to the platform and uploading everything I had to.

Then, time passed again.

In August 2023, 8 months after I got the approval and uploaded everything, I called the bank and asked if there was some kind of problem because I did not hear from them. The answer couldn’t be more hilarious. The (very nice and kind!) woman told me that my signature under the “Verwendungsnachweis” was missing and that the process was stopped until I send that document to them, via snail-mail, not digitally. Apparently, digital signatures simply don’t exist in Germany, although millions of Euros have been spent for adding this exact feature in the passport everyone carries around. But back to the story, I asked where I would find that “Verwendungsnachweis” and the administrator was so kind to send it via e-mail to me. Opening the pdf document, I realised that this was a screenshot of the website, printed out, breaking the layout. I only wanted to get it done, signed it and got it on its way on the first of August 2023.

And then, waiting.

After two weeks, I called again on the 14th of August. Another (also very nice!) administrator informed me about something interesting. Here’s a memory protocol of the dialog:

Nice administrator: “Yes, the Zuwendungsbescheid arrived here. … But I see that there is a mistake. This will make it impossible for us to grant you any money. You have to cancel the Zuwendungsbescheid and resend it to us in the correct version.”

Me: “What? Your coworker send me the document via mail, I did not change a thing about this. I only printed it out and signed it.”

Nice administrator: “Yes, I see that. But it is just the way it is.”

Me: “So you are telling me I waited eight months, then called you to be informed that a document is missing, I signed the exact same document you send me and now there is a mistake in this?”

Nice administrator: “Yes, the problem is that we don’t see what is happening on the platform until we receive a letter via physical mail. Then we log in to the platform and check the documents. There is no automation …”

And then it went downhill. Upon checking the documents, she realized I bought the bike before I was allowed to, and informed me (nicely!) that she would have to cancel my request. I was too fast for this system.

To put this into one sentence: After spending hours and hours of my time to adhere to this process and being entitled to this bonus, I simply did not get it because I was too fast for the process.

So here I am, still having one of the best bikes there is, and being happy about it. And to be honest, not needing the money desperately. But I feel that there is something very, very wrong. We, that is the people living in Germany, are falling behind more and more, every day. Bureaucratic, paper-based processes are implemented in digital “solutions”, costing a ton of taxpayer’s money, resulting in hard to understand and even harder to use software. But the saddest thing about that is the indifference of many of my countrymen and -women. “That’s just the system”, “I can’t change this”, is what I hear all so often.

German people are superb at finding out what does not work, and talking loudly that new ideas and concepts cannot work because they are new. A lot of innovative products simply are “impossible” so long as they are implemented in other countries. Then, they are ignored for quite some time here, because they are “impossible” and the folks over there in that other country just didn’t realize that yet. Some time later, we adopt this “impossible” thing in the worst way imaginable. Just like the process I described in this story.

To at least learn something from these events, I thought of the following:

Guidelines for a Successful Digitalisation Project:

  1. Performance matters! Your apps should be responsible and quick when being used. Of course, it should scale to thousands of users.

  2. UX matters! Really transform your process into the digital world instead of just implementing it with computers.

  3. Optimisation matters! What can be automated should be automated.

  4. Fast feedback loops matter! Customers waiting for months to get feedback is a sure sign that your process is way too slow. Use technology as an accelerator to form a lean organisation.

  5. Digitalise everything! If you force your user to print something on actual paper, your product is not digital.

  6. Integrate your entire staff into the new system. The digital components should work hand in hand with humans and your employees should be happy to use the system.

Dear fellow developers, and Scrum masters, and designers, and architects and devops-people and all the other human entities working in the tech industry: We have a responsibility. Let’s act on it.