The digital citizen’s account – a step towards the digitalization of municipal administration

Those who remember that their identity card is about to expire or want to re-register their car after moving home are likely to have a hard time in Germany. We are still a long away from having a digital citizen’s account. This means that administrative tasks generally require the individual to visit their local town hall or the relevant office and to initiate an often lengthy application process.

In the future, however, this is set to become easier: With the introduction of the digital citizen’s account, digitalization is also set to make its way into the administration of local municipalities and simplify the lives of both citizens and administrative staff.

What is the digital citizen’s account?

The digital citizen’s account is a way of providing citizens with electronic access to administrative services that are provided by the federal and state governments and the municipalities. It provides a digital profile for each citizen. All administrative services and processes, such as applying for identification documents like ID cards or driver’s licenses, obtaining building permits or applying for welfare benefits, are set to become available at this central point free of charge.

The digital citizen’s account is included in the “Law for the Improvement of Online Access to Administrative Services”, known as the Online Access Act (OZG) for short, which was passed in 2017. The Online Access Act requires the German federal and state governments to offer their administrative services to citizens in digital form by the end of 2022. The implementation schedule of the OZG requires 575 administrative services to be digitalized by that time. These are sorted according to topic area and include, for instance, the following topics:

  • Work & retirement: Job search, pension, financial security
  • Building & housing: Relocation, house building and buying real estate
  • Family & children: Marriage, birth, childcare, custody rights
  • Taxes & customs: Taxes and duties, foreign business, tax declarations
  • Mobility & travel: Car ownership, driving licenses, parking permits

Some 11,000 municipalities are affected by this. This requires online administrative portals through which digital services are offered and made accessible to citizens. To gain access, they receive a user account, known as the digital citizen’s account, through which they can access the digital offerings. It is important to note that the digital citizen’s account is intended as a supplementary offering to citizens. The conventional way of approaching the public authority remains in place.

What problems is the digital citizen’s account designed to solve?

Until now, administrative tasks such as applying for a new identity card have required the individual to make a visit to their local town hall. This is associated with limited flexibility, not to mention long waits for an appointment or standing in line. Since the opening hours are often incompatible with the individual’s working hours, it is sometimes necessary for them to use a valuable day of their leave entitlement – a big sacrifice, all for the sake of bureaucracy.

In addition to this, many of the work steps at municipal administrative offices are still paper-based, which leads to slow, non-transparent and error-prone processes. Patience is therefore required – both for the citizen who sends in the application and the administrative employee who is processing the application.

What are the goals of the digital citizen’s account?

With the digital citizen’s account, citizens should be able to complete administrative tasks electronically, which previously required a trip to the town hall.

It has four key objectives:

Time saving: If administrative tasks can be completed conveniently from home, the time required for them is reduced to a minimum. While it was previously necessary to make an appointment and to expect a long wait at the town hall, with the digital offering, the task can be completed with just a few clicks – and at any time. Sacrificing a day of one’s leave entitlement becomes unnecessary.

On the administrative side, too, the digital citizen’s account leads to a noticeable time saving, because the workload of the administrative employee is significantly reduced by the use of the citizen’s account and the associated digitalization of the administrative office.

User friendliness: Not only does the time saving which is achieved by the electronic citizen account make life easier for citizens and administrative staff – the simplification of processes does as well. During the implementation of the Online Access Act , the goal is to avoid complicated paper forms from simply being made available digitally. On the contrary, it is to simplify the associated process and make it more user-friendly.

The digital availability also makes it easier to find the offers that the individual needs.

Quality and safety: Another important goal of the Online Access Act is to ensure that the digital citizen’s account and the administrative services offered via it are available to every citizen in the same quality – regardless of the municipality in which s/he lives and the software used there.

Data protection also plays an important role and is ensured through extensive protection mechanisms.

Efficiency: To advance the digitalization of administrative services on a uniform basis and to ensure the above-mentioned consistent quality, the standardization of IT structures is also desirable. This leads to a shared basis that also facilitates cooperation across municipal boundaries.

What are the advantages of the digital citizen’s account?

By digitalizing the services listed in the OZG implementation schedule and the associated electronic citizen’s account, administrative authorities get a lot closer to the ideal of the “digital city”. The digitalization of administrative services results in the following advantages in particular:

Time saving: The citizen’s account allows the individual to complete administrative tasks from the comfort of their own home. This eliminates the need to go to the town hall, to post documents or to endure long waiting times, because the processing is much faster due to the digital mapping of the work steps. Both the citizen and the administrative staff benefit from this. The retrieval of documents or information is also significantly accelerated, since, for example, a search function can be used rather than manual searching through file folders.

Administrative tasks which extend beyond official boundaries can also be processed digitally at the same time, as the underlying systems are to be networked with each other. This allows for a seamless data transfer between the individual authorities and municipalities, simplifying and accelerating the exchange considerably.

Transparency: Submitting an application to the town hall initiates a period of uncertainty. It often takes several weeks to find out whether the application has arrived at the correct place or whether it has been lost and whether all the documents are complete. The digital citizen’s account puts an end to this, because it makes it easy to track how far processing has already progressed. This spares both the citizen and the administrative staff unnecessary inquiries.

Resource saving: Citizens can use the citizen account to take administrative tasks that are covered by the OZG into their own hands. This reduces the operational workload for the administrative staff and frees up time for them to do consultations and work on new projects for which they previously had no time.

Flexibility: The digital citizen’s account enables citizens to complete administrative tasks at any time and at any place. The administrative staff also benefit from this flexibility: Thanks to the digitalization of the administrative processes, civil servants can increasingly say goodbye to fixed working hours and having to work in the office, as the paperless town hall also enables them to work from home and enjoy flexible working hours.

The most important prerequisite for the digital citizen’s account to be implemented in accordance with the OTG is that all data and documents which are to be made available via the citizen’s account are available in digital form. In the world of municipal administration, this can mean a workload that should not be underestimated, as many work processes are still paper-based. The shift away from paper takes the digitalization of administrative services a big step forward.

Thanks to modern technological support, the digitalization of paper documents is less problematic than it sounds, because with the right solution, this process largely runs automatically. Modern scanners with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for digital document capture read documents automatically in the scanning process, recognize their contents almost completely with AI software and sort them e.g. according to the date.

The next step is to have a central filing location for all digital documents. Here, a document management system (DMS) with an archive is the solution of choice. This platform isn’t just used for structured and secure filing, but also enables all of the document-based work to be carried out in electronic form, and enables straightforward collaborations without media discontinuities – both for the user of the citizen’s account and within the administration as well as with other administrative organizations.

Users can therefore access the data and documents stored in the DMS and released for them via the citizen’s account and thus, for example, initiate applications for ID documents or funds. The integration of documents in work flows enables an automated flow of the corresponding work process, in which all responsible clerks are involved and tasks and deadlines are monitored by the system at the same time. Long waiting times, lost documents and missed deadlines are now a thing of the past.

Not only can data and documents created by the municipality be processed in the DMS, but information that comes from external sources can also be easily integrated and made available via the digital citizen’s account. This simplifies the cooperation with other authorities and municipalities, for example. It doesn’t matter what type of documents and formats are involved, whether it is forms, confirmations, information documents or approvals, such as PDF, Word or image files, etc. With the right software, the document management remains scalable, so that even ever-growing document volumes can be accommodated without any problems.

A particular advantage of the document management system is the automatic consideration of data protection as well as the audit security of the stored documents. The requirements of the GDPR and the German GoBD (principles for properly maintaining, keeping and storing books, records and documents in electronic form and for data access) are mapped automatically, and erasure periods can be predetermined so that the compliance with the statutory requirements does not have to be ensured manually.

Additionally, the user-friendliness required by the Online Access Act is no problem with the right DMS: After setting up the user account, users can start using it straight away. Thanks to its intuitive usability, everyone is able to manage their administrative affairs online. Access is also possible on a web-based basis and via app. That means you can save yourself the trip to the town hall.

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