BUREAUCRACY: BURDEN OR BLESSING FOR GERMAN SOCIETY?

JULIA CONSTABLE

APRIL 2018





After waiting in line at the residents’ office for an hour, my patience is quickly wearing thin. It’s 7am on a freezing Friday morning and I’m clutching a stack of documents wider than the pretzel that I’ve had for breakfast, fruitlessly hoping that this third attempt to change my address will be a success. The phrase “bureaucratic nightmare” does not even begin to describe the metaphorical, near physical fight I have had with the pencil-pushing staff, who are likely now beginning to pity me because I practically now live in the lobby of their offices. Initially, it wasn’t enough to have my signed rental agreement, passport, work contract and confirmation of residence form to prove my credibility; instead my landlady had to fill out another completely new form with all the information I had previously presented, once again signed by her, to prove that I wasn’t a criminal faking my identity to rent a flat.

Admittedly, this description seems extreme, but after missing several mornings of work and pointlessly queuing only to be told there’s yet another hoop to jump through, my feelings towards bureaucracy are only those of frustration and anger. Finally, I am resigned to the fact that I have to abide by the rules that govern the German way of life. This whole stressful experience left me wondering; does German bureaucracy prevent efficiency and stifle innovation? Ultimately, is this fundamental building block of business actually counterproductive?

Although I may just sound like another disgruntled Brit abroad, there is evidence to suggest that the Germans themselves hold a similar opinion. For example, the German government established the “Simplified Bureaucracy and Better Regulation” initiative in 2006, a governmental department dedicated to reducing official red tape. Overall, the aim of the scheme was to foster economic growth by simplifying complicated application procedures across a range of different sectors, including health and safety, construction, education and finance. The concept was incredibly forward thinking and innovative, however the bureaucratical procedures put in place to combat bureaucracy seem somewhat counterintuitive, as this scheme has arguably become just as complicated as the paperwork it seeks to prevent. The Federal Statistic Office, Destatis, uses countless methodologies to measure the “compliance costs on businesses” and the “barometer of burdens”, but ultimately the official jargon is too complex for the average person to comprehend. An example of this is the “Verkehrswegeplanungsbeschleunigungsgesetz”, a law adapted in 2015 to accelerate approval for building new road networks, with a name that sounds longer than the Great North Road itself.

A further example of over-regulation having threatened Germany’s competitive edge in the past was explained clearly by a World Bank study entitled “Doing Business in 2004”. The report described that it took 45 days for eager entrepreneurs to register their start-ups in Germany, compared to 18 days in the UK and only four in America. Not only was the bureaucracy stifling the success of new start-up enterprises, the precedent of over regulation was also set from the very beginning. Over a decade later, German business law still poses a threat to new businesses. Most notably, financial barriers to entry in to the market for entrepreneurs are still very high; to register a Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (GmbH) into the Commercial Register it costs an eye-watering 25,000 Euros, a sum which seems extreme when compared with the £12 direct debit payment that the UK Government requires to register a private limited company in Britain.

On the one hand, bureaucracy does have its advantages: German political economist, Max Weber, identified the positive aspects of bureaucracy in the late 19th century, which are still just as relevant today: rigorous administration establishes strong hierarchy within organisations, creating rigid chains of command, whilst rules that govern work practices and delegation of tasks are established to ensure predictability, rational thinking and democratic decision making. However, this rigidity can mean businesses and governments become inflexible and resistant to change. Over time, a well-oiled bureaucratic business machine can begin to mechanically deal with customers in a routine and impersonal way. Once this begins to happen, customers are likely to become frustrated and disenfranchised, succumbing to the mind numbingly dull and ordered way of things, but does this mean that bureaucracy forces creativity and innovation to grind to a standstill? Apparently not.

A group of six Syrian refugees released an app in 2017 called “Bureaucrazy,” after having fled to Germany and being immediately overwhelmed by the mountain of paperwork that awaited them. Designed to translate the complicated terminology of governmental documents from German to English and Arabic, the app is now branching out, aiming to inform users which exact papers are needed for new residents, whilst guiding them to the correct offices to submit said documents.

Although it is incredible to witness the uninhibited creativity that bureaucracy has inspired, it is sad to think that such tools are needed to decode a system of rules that should make processes transparent and understandable. A compromise needs to be found between the two extremes: the “iron cage” of bureaucratic regulation shouldn’t compel people to circumvent the rules. Instead, a rule-loving society like Germany should encourage new regulation reforms, or even deregulation, which promotes functional order, without the unnecessary paperwork.