The European Services Directive is celebrating its 5th birthday and bureaucrats are having a ball
By Thorsten Bullerdiek*
Monsters are, by definition, scary and grotesque fantasy creatures of gargantuan proportions. Unfortunately, bureaucratic monsters, which are frequently encountered in Germany, are no figments of our imagination, and this particular and very real specimen will soon be celebrating its fifth birthday. It was born on December 28th 2006 and given the somewhat cumbersome name “European Services Directive”. It weighed in at 33 pages at the time of its birth.
Bureaucrats as godparents
The new-born monster was cute and small and soon found willing godparents in Germany – the bureaucrats. They loved the little creature so much that they fed it a few more pages each day. Unfortunately, this didn’t make the monster any more attractive. Instead, it grew a large belly and was often ridiculed or overlooked. The worried bureaucrats quickly thought up ways to make people love and cherish the monster. First, they established study groups and sought the advice of consultancies. Then they turned their attention towards the public authorities and instructed them to check each and every regulation for compatibility with EU law. After that they created costly Services Portals and so-called Points of Single Contact, which were largely ignored from the word go (and the approach was anything but “single” of course). Given that the increasingly expensive monster will soon be celebrating another birthday, we shall take this as an opportunity to have a closer look at the professional German approach to promoting bureaucracy.
The Standards Assessment – a field day for bureaucracy
This great idea, which brought joy to town halls across the country, undoubtedly deserves a special price for services to bureaucracy. Each and every set of rules for local cemeteries, markets or special use permits – in fact every single regulatory tool in existence – had to be reviewed in line with the Standards Assessment. And since it was clear that one could not, or would not, trust local authorities, a special report had to be compiled each time. This led to at least two great achievements:
1. Huge costs: It is safe to assume that each of the 11,000 municipalities in Germany spent an average 40 hours on the Standards Assessment. The total of 440,000 hours multiplied with €40.79 (the average hourly rate for a senior grade A10 civil servant) results in a staggering €17.95 million – wasted right at the start.
2. A permanent reporting obligation on the basis that the policy was deemed “hugely successful”. It is simply not enough to just waste huge amounts of money. It is also important to do so in a sustainable way, i.e. permanently and in line with the rules. You could of course wait until a particular norm is challenged in court before you decide to act. This approach would save us all a lot of money, but it is obviously not the preferred method among German and EU bureaucrats.
Lack of demand for (multiple) Points of Single Contact
There are many different types of Points of Single Contact (PSCs) in Germany, 55 in Lower Saxony alone. According to research conducted by the State of Lower Saxony, these 55 authorities, which were established with great enthusiasm through a large number of meetings and workshops, dealt with a total of one (!) case and 125 electronic enquiries between the beginning of 2010 and June 2011. 64% of the enquiries could be handled within less than 15 minutes. In other words, each PSC dealt with only 2.2 enquiries over one and a half years. And there haven’t been any revenues from fees either. In fact, a recent survey among PSCs points towards an actual decline in the number of enquiries. The logical conclusion would be to take measures and reduce expenditure. But the bureaucrats threaten to undermine any rational thinking of this kind. Unwilling to accept the notion of an unsuccessful project, they are already drawing up new tasks and bureaucratic manoeuvring for the various PSCs. That surely doesn’t make sense…
The Services Portal – a perfect money pit
The State of Lower Saxony has treated itself to a flashy new Services Portal, but hardly anyone uses it. What’s more, all authorities in Lower Saxony were granted their very own Electronic Court and Administration Mailbox. Since there has only been one proper case so far, one has to hope that they will find an additional use for their expensive white elephant. It seems that some bureaucrats, however, would rather throw good money after bad and invest in additional marketing to encourage a wider use of this costly infrastructure. Let’s hope that the State Government and the Court of Audit of Lower Saxony will put pay to these plans.
A case for politicians or for the Court of Audit?
Five years after the EU Services Directive came into existence, the EU as well as Germany’s federal government and state governments still shy away from adequate scrutiny regarding the costs and benefits involved. Is Europe really unwilling to listen to any advice, or does Germany plan to become the leading bureaucratic force in implementing the EU Services Directive? One thing is certain: We are the European leaders when it comes to the number of study groups and spending in this particular area. The federal government and the state governments are aware of the worst excesses, but unfortunately there is no sign of decisive action against bad practice.
Municipalities will bear the brunt
The municipalities will be at the receiving end of all this. The EU, the federal government and the state governments have never performed a thorough analysis of the costs which have already been incurred and which are set to rise further. The sad truth is that diligent bureaucrats are already thinking of ways to turn obvious failure into success. The simple logic seems to be: If we double the use of public funds, then even the greatest nonsense will turn into a massive project that will be too big to fail. The only hope is that sensible politicians or even the Court of Audit will wake up to this and put a stop to the madness. The EU offers many advantages, and tools like the Common Market, the Economic and Monetary Union or cross-border consumer protection serve the interests of German businesses. This is not the place to list and comment on all the beneficial measures of the EU. We all know that Europe is good for us. But some things, like the EU Services Directive, have not been thought through in detail.
Our bureaucratic monster should undergo regular medical examinations in order to limit its further growth, and many bureaucrats should have their pulse checked when it comes to this issue.
* Councillor and Press Officer of the Association of Towns and Municipalities of Lower Saxony, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org