What Bureaucratic Berlin can learn from Digital Denmark

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The four of us on a visit to The Reichstag

Four weeks ago today we moved from Copenhagen to Berlin – and it feels like quite an achievement. Moving country with a baby, an apprehensive six year old and two concerned parents in the middle of winter hasn’t been particularly easy. Combine that with not knowing anyone in Berlin and being unable to speak the language, and you begin to get a sense of why we’ve found it a bit of a challenge.

But I feel that things are turning a corner and I am beginning to appreciate how lucky we are to live where we do. (You can read about my first impressions of living in Mitte here). In spite of the language barrier, and the warnings I received that Berliners can be unfriendly, I have been pleasantly surprised by how kind people have been. The caretaker (Hausmeister) in our apartment block speaks absolutely no English. And yet he and I have developed a good relationship thanks to the universal language of pointing, drawing pictures, google translate and two German words – Wunderbar and Scheisse.

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Our neighbourhood in Mitte

We’re also slowly meeting people through my son’s school and by talking to strangers. Actually, I love this part of moving to a new place. I am still good friends with a number of people I randomly met in parks in Copenhagen. I smile when our son, Charlie, orders me to go and talk to someone he likes the look of because they might become a friend.

What’s made this move more stressful than it should have been, however, has been the Berlin bureaucracy. Of course getting established in a new city, yet alone country, is never easy, but I didn’t think it would be quite so difficult. Like most people, I think of Germany as modern and efficient. But now I realise that I spent too long in a country that is modern and efficient – Denmark!

In order to do anything in Berlin you need to be very good at paper work. Take registering your address. Without this Anmeldung document (which is just a piece of paper, by the way) you can’t do very much at all – no bank account, no medical insurance, no benefits.

But getting an appointment to register the address was a challenge in itself. We were originally told we couldn’t be seen until the end of January. Thankfully we have had help from a relocation consultant whose business is to support people like us. Without Emily, I’m not sure I would have survived the last four weeks. She managed to get our Anmeldung at the beginning of January.

Armed with that crucial document, we could finally set up a bank account. We had an appointment with a very helpful woman. But after two and a half hours – yes, two and a half hours – we only managed to open one joint account. We were then told that we had to wait for bank cards and pins to arrive in the post before we could actually use it. That took between seven and ten days and only this week can we finally use both our debit and visa cards.

Incidentally, Berlin runs on cash. There are many shops and restaurants here that don’t accept cards at all. When you’ve got used to using your card or mobile pay to buy anything and everything in Denmark, Berlin’s cash society has come as quite a shock.

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Image: Publicstock.net

Buying a mobile phone and setting up a new contract in Berlin had to be more straight forward – or so I thought. Despite having even more pieces of paper to prove I was legit (my address registration, bank account details, plus my passport) things didn’t turn out well. After another two hours and more form filling, I was told that my bank account was “too new” and I had to wait. I do now have a phone but have been told it will be another 25 days before we can get wifi in our apartment. And so it goes on.

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I know how this Berlin artist feels!

Compare this to Denmark. As soon as you register your address you’re sent a CPR card containing your personal identification number. With this number you get access to all government services from health to kindergartens and even libraries. No bits of paper, no sitting around for hours on end trying to set up a bank account or buy a phone. (I do, however, remember waiting some time for wifi to be set up.)  Even babies are on the system within minutes of being born. After giving birth to my daughter in Denmark, the first thing I received in the delivery room was her CPR number. It was quite extraordinary. And with a single, personal and secure login for public and even some private websites – Nem ID – you can pretty much do everything digitally.

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This gives you an idea of what a Danish CPR card looks like

Of course a personal ID number means the state knows a lot about you. And this is where I have some sympathy for Germany. Like Britons, Germans are wary of too much state control. They are very protective of their privacy and their personal data. With a population of around 81 million people, compared to Denmark’s five and a half million, the country’s sheer size also makes it a challenge for the authorities.

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Museum Island, Berlin

But for a city that’s trying to become the start-up capital of Europe, and is actively using Brexit to encourage companies from London to move to Berlin, I think it’s time for a rethink. Even the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has talked about the importance of Germany embracing digitalisation before it’s left behind.

For those of us new to Germany, I guess we’ve just got to get used to it. Follow the rules, play the game, and try to be patient. Let’s see how I do.

*UPDATE: A few people have contacted me to say that the UK can be equally bureaucratic. I don’t doubt this and am relieved that as a Brit, I won’t have to try navigating the system as a foreigner. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t make things worse.