Deutsche Fahne vor dem Reichstagsgebäude

Lessons from Germany’s political power struggles

Recent debates on nuclear power plant lifetimes and an investment by a Chinese state-owned corporation revealed serious deficiencies in the German government’s inter-ministerial cooperation. Why does political coordination work better in other countries?


By Karola Klatt

Recently we have seen how Chancellor Olaf Scholz used his so-called Richtlinienkompetenz, a constitutionally granted power, to end the bitter dispute between the two ministers Robert Habeck (economy and climate) and Christian Lindner (finance) on the subject of nuclear power plant lifetimes. The ministries were apparently unable to reach an agreement among themselves. Shortly afterwards, going against objections from six specialized ministries, Scholz pushed through the Chinese state-owned company Cosco’s investment in a Port of Hamburg terminal, albeit in a scaled-down form. These shows of power by Chancellor Scholz clearly demonstrate a lack of cooperation between the ministries, both in the dealings between the ministries as well as their dealings with the Chancellor's office.

On the one hand, these developments indicate that the coalition’s cohesion is not as strong as the three parties in the traffic light coalition had initially staged it. Instead, each of them vies to raise its profile. On the other hand, there are also structural reasons for this apparent inability to cooperate politically.

Trench warfare instead of cooperation

In a new study, researchers from the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) identify governance weaknesses that make it difficult for liberal democracies to take an effective and long-term stance on systemic crises such as climate change, species extinction, the geopolitical reordering of the world or the threat of pandemics. One of these problems lies in a lack of policy coordination. “Silo-based thinking within individual departments and levels of government presents a serious challenge to policy coherence,” conclude the SGI authors.

It may hardly come as a surprise that Germany scores relatively poorly in terms of its interministerial coordination capacity in a comparison of the 41 OECD and EU countries surveyed in the study. “The greatest (governance) challenges for Germany’s decentralized system of government continue to be the marginally effective coordination between the chancellor’s office and the line ministries (rank 30), the chancellery’s insufficient sectoral expertise which limits its ability to monitor line ministries (rank 23) and the lack of proactive coordination with regard to cabinet proposals (rank 28).”

Good cooperation within multi-party coalitions

In Germany, the policy-making system is structured in a distinct “department principle” by which ministers manage their respective areas of responsibility on their own. For this reason, the preparation of draft legislation lies primarily in the hands of the ministries. Disagreements between ministries and the Chancellor's office are discussed during regular meetings at the level of state secretaries and Chancellor's office staff and, if possible, resolved.

Finland, which has been leading the ranking of the capacity for policy coordination for many years, has a different understanding of the tasks of the ministries. The country has experience with governing in multi-party coalitions: the current government under Prime Minister Sanna Marin also consists of five parties, spanning ideological differences. Here, the political initiative is expected to come from the Prime Minister's office based on of the jointly agreed government program. The ministries then carry out thematic preparation of the projects. They are supported in their decision-making by analysis, evaluation and research activities, which in turn are coordinated by the Head of Government’s office. The coordination of communication between the government and the various ministries is also the responsibility of the Prime Minister's office.

Another factor contributing to the Finnish model’s success is the fact that most issues and plans are initially discussed and examined in cabinet committees and working groups before making their way into cabinet meetings. This approach helps establish consensus between the ministries in advance.

What can be improved in Germany?

The department principle could only be abolished in Germany by amending constitutional law. Nevertheless, there are other ways to counteract the silo mentality of the powerful ministries.

For example, Canada shows how it is possible to create and expand central, independent advisory bodies and to strengthen their role in the political process. Canada's line ministries are obliged to involve the Privy Council Office to examine political projects. This body provides professional and impartial advice to the Prime Minister, line ministries, cabinet and cabinet committees on matters of national and international importance. It assists in the implementation of the government's program and ensures that the cabinet’s decision-making process runs smoothly. Finance Canada and the Treasury Board are other independent bodies that regularly and independently review legislative proposals.

Modernization through digitalization

Another possibility would be to consistently digitalize government business, as has already happened in New Zealand, for example. Here, senior government positions have been created - such as the Chief Digital Officer and the Chief Data Steward - who work with 55 senior leaders from more than 20 agencies to provide a coherent, inter-agency digital system that promotes collaborative government working.

In Germany, the Covid-19 pandemic fueled the introduction of e-governance mechanisms. The creation of electronic record-keeping for the Chancellery, ministries and agencies in a single federal cloud is still underway. It is to be hoped that e-governance will spark a more agile way of thinking, thus improving cooperation between the Chancellery, ministries and federal states.

Today, every state must be able to react quickly to crises in order to mitigate their consequences without losing sight of long-term political goals. To achieve this, it will be crucial to recognize institutional weaknesses in the political establishment and integrate new methods and processes into the political decision-making process. This, in turn, will help dissolve blockades and arrive at sustainable solutions by working together rather than against each other.

Karola Klatt is a science journalist and editor of SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI Blog.