Bureaucracy in Germany: “This is forced illegality!”

Bureaucracy in Germany: “This is forced illegality!”

Benjamin Strasser is the federal government’s coordinator for an issue that annoys just about everyone: bureaucracy. Or, to be more specific, for the reduction of bureaucracy. A conversation about tile problems at the bakery, pictures in the Bundestag and the EU.

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Mr. Strasser, what annoys you most about bureaucracy?
That you need a form for every process that takes place here in the German Bundestag. I am not allowed to hang a picture myself, but have to fill out an application form so that someone can come and hang a picture.

Your job is to reduce bureaucracy. How does that work?
I would say better than expected. When I took on this task, I was not jumping around the office with joy. The track record of previous governments on this issue was not outstanding, despite all their efforts. Accordingly, we did not rush into it straight away. First of all, we changed our method: in the past, only the government talked to itself about where it wanted to reduce bureaucracy. For the first time, we are involving those affected. The federal government specifically asked associations: where, from a practical point of view, should unnecessary bureaucracy be reduced? The result showed that we had hit a nerve here: within a few weeks, 442 proposals were submitted, which we then evaluated and weighted with the Federal Statistical Office. We have already implemented 115 or are in the process of implementing them, and more than 60 are still being examined. This shows that we take what practice has shown us seriously.

What exactly should be abolished?
For example, we have raised the monetary thresholds for company size classes in accounting.

“There is no magic wand against bureaucracy”

What they mean is that certain financial indicators determine which legal requirements must be observed when preparing financial statements.
Exactly. I was just last week at a company in Ludwigsburg, and this is a real relief for them with their over 100 employees. In total, we are relieving the burden on almost 50,000 companies across Germany. For each company, this is an average relief of around 12,500 euros and 105.65 hours less paperwork per year. This shows that this change in method means that the reduction in bureaucracy is actually having a greater impact on people’s everyday lives than before.

Many companies that are asked about this tend to say: Even if there are cuts on one side, something new is being added on the other.
I understand the scepticism because there have been big announcements in the past and then too little or nothing has happened. But the truth is that there is no magic wand to combat bureaucracy. There will not be one law that will remove bureaucracy once and for all. Reducing bureaucracy is a long-distance sprint. We have now completed the first few kilometers. What we have decided in recent months will only be noticeable in the coming months. The Meseberg debureaucratization package from the summer alone relieves the people of Germany of three billion euros every year – that is three times as much as the largest package ever put together in the history of German bureaucracy reduction.

Bureaucracy Reduction Officer Benjamin Strasser

© Jörg Carstensen / Picture Alliance

To person

Benjamin Strasser is Parliamentary State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Government’s Coordinator for Better Regulation and Bureaucracy Reduction. He is a member of the FDP and has been a member of the Bundestag since 2017.

But it is simply not enough.
That’s why we’re thinking ahead. For example, we’re looking at digital employment contracts and procurement law. We urgently need to address electronic certificates of incapacity for work. Incidentally, this was a proposal from the grand coalition’s last bureaucracy reduction law. In practice, however, it doesn’t lead to less bureaucracy, but rather to more, because the structures of health insurance companies in Germany were not taken into account. We urgently need to fix this. Many more steps are therefore necessary.

You have to deal with tiny details. Does it annoy you that you don’t even have one big success to announce?
Of course it would be better if there was a button that you just had to press. And then everyone in Germany would say: Great, now we’ll have 20 years of peace. But that’s unrealistic. Bureaucracy plays a role on various levels. Firstly, it’s about the image of humanity. If I trust the citizens and believe in the power of the individual, I make laws differently than if I assume that the Germans’ first thought is how they can next deceive the state. If I trust people to regulate things in their everyday lives – also in the interest of the community – then I need less regulation. But obviously not all those in political positions have this worldview, otherwise some laws and regulations would not exist. But it’s also about which levels you address: the federal government cannot regulate everything on its own. The states must also be included, especially in the implementation of the laws. We are also the first federal government to involve the EU in reducing bureaucracy. We no longer want to accept the excuse that “everything comes from Brussels, it’s not our fault”. That’s not true either: as the federal government, we are involved in the legislation in Brussels.

Even within the traffic light coalition, you find it difficult to agree on regulations that you are dismantling. How is that supposed to work in the EU?
We have launched a relief initiative with France and are now actively seeking partners in Europe so that after the European elections, the new Commission can reduce bureaucracy at European level.

Most recently, the federal government prevented, among other things, the European Supply Chain Act due to opposition from the FDP, of which you are also a member.
This is also a necessary consequence: we are undermining our national efforts to reduce bureaucracy if we simply wave through bureaucratic monsters at the European level. That doesn’t mean that I am critical of Europe. I think it is more pro-European to actively get involved in the legislative process.

In the responses to the association survey, it is noticeable that it is not so easy to see what is still a matter of reducing bureaucracy and where people simply want to abolish rights. For example, it is suggested that maternity protection should be relaxed and working hours should be made more flexible.
You have to make a clear distinction: what is actually a reduction in bureaucracy and what is being demanded for other reasons? But working hours are a very good example. My claim is that there is no other law in Germany that is violated as often, consciously or unconsciously, as German working hour law. This shows that the law in this form no longer corresponds to the realities of life for people in Germany and needs to be reformed.

“Not every individual case can or should be regulated by law”

Now, bureaucracy is not only bad. It needs rules. Do you have a favorite bureaucratic rule?
Bureaucracy means “rule of the administration”. In a constitutional state, it is good that the administration makes decisions based on law and order. If it did not do this, we would live in an arbitrary state where it depends on the individual official whether you receive a certain state service or not. I think we all agree that we do not want that, but that there must be certain procedures and legal bases. In this respect, I am of course glad that there are rules in the road traffic regulations or in labor law. My aim is simply to abolish excessive bureaucracy.

But where do you draw the line? What is considered excessive is a matter of interpretation.
It gets out of hand when people no longer understand the rules and when the administration and politicians themselves can no longer explain why the rules even exist. An example from a baker in Hesse: the trade association came into his bakery and said: The smooth tiles here are a risk of accidents for the employees. If flour and water and dough scraps land on them, you could slip. You need rough tiles so that nothing happens. So he installed rough tiles. Then a few weeks later the health department came and of course said: For God’s sake, if this flour dust settles there and you can’t clean it properly, it will get moldy. That is a health risk for the people who eat bread rolls. You have to install smooth tiles. That is illegality being forced upon you! No matter how you behave, what you are doing is not legal. That weakens trust in the state. The state cannot solve and take on all of life’s problems. It cannot create justice in individual cases through laws.

What do you mean?
Today we live in a society in which there are very different lifestyles. It is no longer the 1950s. The core of the excessive bureaucracy that we are experiencing today is that we have tried for far too long to write laws in such a way that they specify every decision for the administrations and the citizens in detail and cover every individual case. That cannot work. Not every individual case can or should be regulated by a law.

During the Corona pandemic, many things were implemented very quickly and without red tape. For example, there were suddenly Corona test centers everywhere. As it turned out later, many fraudsters took advantage of the unbureaucratic billing. Is the image of people based on trust perhaps simply not correct?
I would disagree with the theory that there was widespread fraud. But the crucial question is: if I overregulate, will there be no more fraud? Even in very strictly regulated areas, there will always be people who will find ways and means to do so. I also have to ask myself who I am burdening with overregulation. If I burden 99 people to prevent one case of fraud, that may not be the right approach from an economic perspective. If Corona has had a positive effect, it is that we have seen what is possible digitally. We have experienced a real push towards digitalization. We have also made many of these things permanent, such as video hearings in civil proceedings.

So do we simply have to accept that more general legislation will also lead to more mistakes?
We definitely need a different culture of error. How do we deal with errors among our friends, errors made by civil servants or politicians? We always immediately look for the person responsible for the problem. The problem is that this limits the courage to act. For an efficient administration, however, we need an administrative body that is willing to make decisions. For many standards, the civil servants who make the decisions have discretionary powers. Why? Because we cannot regulate every single issue by law. On the ground, we see too often that new or bold ideas are prevented. This is of course due to fear of making mistakes. In such cases, I would rather reject an application if there is any doubt than accommodate the request.

Mr Strasser, last question: Could it be justified for members of the Bundestag to hang their own pictures in their offices?
I may have studied law and not chosen a technical career, but I do believe that I could hammer two nails into the wall. Perhaps we should put this idea forward to the Bundestag’s Council of Elders.

Source: Stern

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