Judith Gerlach recently made a joke that didn’t really catch fire. The scene tells a lot about the digital minister and her problem. A Tuesday in March, press conference after the cabinet, Gerlach talks about her digital plan, which should make Bavaria a “liveable and sustainable digital state”. The cabinet decision, she says, will now be printed out, bound nicely and sent by post to everyone involved. Splendid! But nobody laughs, nobody twitches. Not the Head of the State Chancellery, not the Minister of Education standing next to Gerlach, not the reporters. Silence.
Apparently, the digital state of Bavaria is believed to be capable of everything, perhaps she should have tried the stagecoach for a better understanding. “Just kidding,” says the CSU politician then, into the silence. The digital plan will of course be sent digitally. And soon she will make a government statement on this in the state parliament. More precisely: this Wednesday. Will she bring up the joke again?
If you like, Judith Gerlach works every day to finally make someone laugh when she says “Post”. Since 2018 she has resided in the Digital Ministry, which Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU) invented at the time. Whereby, reside? If you start at Odeonsplatz to visit Gerlach, you will pass the Ministry of the Interior, then the Ministry of Agriculture, proud buildings, almost palaces. Then you turn, 150 meters, and stand in front of a simple box building. The door to the Ministry can be found between a bank branch and a furniture store, which is still opening, as the shop window says: “Coming soon!” It somehow also fits the digital state of Bavaria. Small joke.
Judith Gerlach, 37, welcomes us on the sixth floor of her ministry in a small room with brightly colored upholstered furniture and even brighter floral wallpaper. “In the tech bubbles we have a language and topics that are not understood in many places. I have to be the translator.” This is how Gerlach describes her job. To translate that, maybe even for the head of state chancellery and the minister of education: “Tech bubbles” are circles in which people move who are professionally involved with digital things. No, this woman is truly not to be envied.
Söder describes the Digital Ministry as a “think tank”, a think tank. However, he did not equip Gerlach’s factory with significant skills or ample funds. Broadband expansion? power of the finance minister. mobile networks? Economy Minister. Artificial intelligence? Occupies the Minister of Science. “But our heads are involved,” says Gerlach about Söder’s high-tech agenda. In the other ministries, “it’s not always the case that I come up with an idea and everyone immediately shouts: yay!” But her house has pushed a lot, “laborious background work”, often “not visible from the outside”.
How does your work work? “I see where there is potential in digitization and then approach the other departments and present a viable solution.” Even with a small “acceleration budget”, the Ministry of Science should recently promote digitally sealed certificates at universities. Gerlach sees herself as a driver where “the threads come together” when it comes to the digital – “away from the silos”. So now she’s allowed to make a government statement. The reaction of the opposition is to be expected. The Greens, SPD, FDP and AfD will probably lose themselves less in details. But question the meaning of Gerlach’s house. again.
Every year, when the state parliament discusses the budget of all ministries, a fundamental debate about the digital ministry unfolds. The house? “faulty construction”. The minister? Depending on the “grace” of colleagues. Again and again the opposition calls for a ministry with clout and real foundations. You don’t start with building a house and let the architect take a look at it later, Gerlach has to listen to such mockery.
Would it be better to introduce a “digital veto”? Every project of the state government could be blocked by the minister with regard to the subject? The request to turn “institutional screws” is also known from the digital scene. She is “not a fan” of the veto, says Gerlach. “For me, digitization is not about preventing things, but about initiating things.” Even now, the impulse usually comes from her ministry. But, of course, “about better initiative opportunities” could be talked about. Elegant, as Gerlach calls for more skills.
What did the Digital Ministry really achieve? And what happens next, with the house and the landlady, when after the state elections “the cards are reshuffled”, as Gerlach puts it? She says: “Digitization doesn’t think in terms of legislative periods.” The digital plan, which she will present on Wednesday, is intended to show a perspective for ten years, around 200 individual measures. One focus: “everyday digitization”. So that people don’t fail in online banking or in the digital town hall. There will be new contact points in 30 municipalities for “digital beginners”, such as seniors, and their questions. “In our wonderful tech bubble, we can’t pretend that everyone is digital natives,” says Gerlach. Example 49-euro ticket, digital or analogue? “There are simply people who say: I have a problem, I don’t know how it works, maybe I don’t want to use it at all.” All in all, the state’s offers must be as simple as possible, otherwise they would become “non-compliant”.
The government statement is “not a statement of accounts” and not an election campaign, Gerlach insists. Just a view. Anyone who looks back anyway will find it difficult to ignore this sentence, which the minister dropped on the day of her appointment. The reporters wanted to know whether she had any digital skills? Gerlach’s answer: “That’s definitely not my specialty”. A shockingly honest, but almost unheard of sentence in the political establishment, which actually allows no weaknesses. Everyone asked: How can she? And Gerlach? Was wondering why anyone would ask her about her competence. “I don’t hear that from male colleagues.” And anyway, she says: “I realized very quickly that I don’t have to have a degree in computer science because I don’t have to program any apps here in the ministry.”
Gerlach is “relatively certain” that her ministry will still exist after the election. But maybe there is another house free, with more power? “A politician must be able to get involved with all issues and develop a certain passion for them.” But the digital “is good for me,” says Gerlach, “regardless of the specialty.”