Week #97 at the Digital Service: Notes for 4–8 March 2024

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7 people of youngish and middle age sitting around a long untidy table with their laptops, some of them talk to each other, some look at their computers, various colourful sticky notes are stuck to the wall behind them

For the second time this winter, a small working group met to explore how we can work towards a shared cross-organisational design system.

Including people from 5 organisations and representing 4 existing design systems, we spent all of Monday comparing what exists so far, how similar or different our libraries are, and we plotted a potential path forward. After our excitement and energy and some energetic responses on social media following our January working session, we dove into the more tangible work.

As expected, the more concrete some considerations get, the more questions and implications arise. From some distance, it doesn’t seem too challenging to align the styles of buttons or checkboxes. Understanding how different the intended use cases are and which diverging decision criteria were used in their creation makes it more important to enter thorough deliberations. As we advance, we need to review our decision-making criteria, gather the research insights we already have, and join efforts to establish an ongoing exchange.

Four people in a sun-flooded office space with glass walls, bare concrete and coloured sticky notes – two are men, the other two have longer hair and face them, next to them are laptop screens
Photo: Laura Fiona Holder-Wurzinger

So far, we have used the International Design in Government community Slack. Now, we might move to Mattermost, a local open-source variant. Working asynchronously will be vital to our further collaboration, as people had to travel from Hamburg and Munich to join the past two meetings.

Going forward, we will conduct an internal investigation into how we could wind down our efforts with our component library, called ‘Angie’, which currently supports most of the products and services we are building. We need to answer some questions for ourselves: 

  • How far does the joint design system need to get before we can make the switch? 
  • How can we effectively support the shared design system with our resources – from design, engineering and user research disciplines especially? 
  • What are the efforts and costs associated with us revamping existing products and services?

Changing how we look at quality standards

Later this week, I joined the first session of the rebooted Service Standard sounding board. The sounding board was initiated back in December 2022 by the Federal Ministry for the Interior. Back then, local government-owned communal consultancy KGSt, the National Regulatory Control Council (Normenkontrollrat), the NExT community of practice network, the Federal Information Technology Centre (ITZBund) and fellowship programme Tech4Germany – Digital Service’s predecessor – were on the sounding board. Unfortunately, the sounding board wound down in 2022 due to a lack of capacity and a shift of focus for the ministry.

Now, some 18 months later, it is back in an almost identical setup. A driver for it is a movement that occurred during my holiday absence. The amendments to the Online Access Act went through their second and third parliamentary readings recently. The Online Access Act and its funding enabled the development of a Service Standard in 2020 and the law has been overall a, if not the, key driver for digital transformation in the German public sector since 2017. The law needed an update as it referenced outdated and unmet deadlines. The changes and first draft were fairly widely discussed in media throughout 2023. Standards were more broadly mentioned in the previous draft, but as things were vague, I did not get too excited. That has changed significantly. In late February 2024, a Recommendation for Decision and Report coming out of the Bundestag referenced the Service Standard for the first time. It asks for making the Service Standard binding.

Roughly translated, the report says the following:

As part of the definition of quality requirements, the Service Standard, which defines cross-programme quality principles for the digitalisation of administrative services, is also to be declared binding in future. These quality requirements include, in particular, specifications for the user-friendly design of digital administrative services and the maturity model, which is to be expanded accordingly in light of the planned end-to-end digitalisation. The specification of binding standards is also intended to ensure a uniform level of accessibility of administrative services within the meaning of the [Online Access Act].”

Beschlussempfehlung und Bericht des Ausschusses für Inneres und Heimat (4. Ausschuss), 21.02.2024

This is a game-changer, a significant boost for the good ways of doing things. It is also what the National Regulatory Control Council demanded in its annual reports in 2016 and 2018 and, most recently, in its 2022 report: using a ministerial statutory order to make the Service Standard mandatory. Suddenly and surprisingly, that appears within reach. While it’s not final and agreed upon in the Bundesrat, the upper part of parliament, it allows us to cheer for a moment and daydream of new spheres of possibilities for creating high-quality user-centred public services in Germany.

Whatever comes next, we are already starting more severe and broader conversations about the Service Standard and its application. That is, obviously, a good thing.

What’s next

After the long weekend, on Tuesday, Caro and I will talk about the application of the Service Standard at ‘Digitaler Staat’ (literally: ‘Digital State’) conference in Berlin. Our talk will be almost identical to what we shared in the event’s online remote version in December. We refreshed the talk only slightly and will reference the latest developments.

We are travelling to Magdeburg on Wednesday for a meeting at the State of Sachsen-Anhalt’s Ministry for Infrastructure and Digitalisation. Again, the topic will be quality standards. As local government representatives will participate, I will contextualise the existing content. Much is about using the Service Standard in procurement and setting the bar for others to match. As a stellar example, I will mention the peer review practices in English local authorities.

Then, on Friday, the first cluster meeting for Germany’s Federal digital strategy projects will be held. Its advisory council kicks off a new working mode, which is supported by Digital Service. The 19 lighthouse projects of the digital strategy, one from each federal government ministry, will participate in thematic clusters. One of the 4 clusters will focus on user-centricity. That is the one I will be supporting, and I am looking forward to it.