Bringing digitalization and innovation into the German administration

After years of working as Head of Service Design at the UK government's Government Digital Service (GDS), Martin Jordan joined the team of the German DigitalService in May 2022 as Head of Design. In our conversation, he talks about his new role and shares insights on how he and his team make the German federal administration more digital and innovative.


Martin Jordan
Photo: Kay Herschelmann

The DigitalService of the German Federal Government develops digital applications that focus on the needs of citizens, businesses, and society. What is your role and goal in your new position as Head of Design?

In the German administration, the role of Head of Design is still a completely new one. While there are now dozens of positions of this kind in the British administration, here it is the very first one. Therefore, the role is only defined to a limited extent, and I can shape it.

I see my task in three main areas: I lead and support the now 13 designers at the Federal Digital Service in their work, I develop the design discipline internally, and I help the German administration to better understand and use user-centered design. In practical terms, that means making our design processes even more inclusive, for example. Since administrative services have to work for everyone in the country - and not just for a narrowly defined target group - accessibility has a very high priority. In the development process of new digital administrative services, we need to consider and involve people with all abilities and knowledge.

In addition, I see my role as a facilitator and connector - both nationally and internationally. In the various parts of the German administration and public sector, there are about 50 designers. Quite a few work alone or in small teams and solve similar problems as we do. It is vital to connect them and stimulate a regular exchange.

Internationally, I have helped to bring together almost 3,000 designers and design-interested administrative staff from over 70 countries in the last five years. Together with several international colleagues, we organize monthly lectures and discussions, host international conferences, and have established a digital platform for ongoing exchange. Unlike in the private sector, exchange between countries is possible and welcomed. We don't have to reinvent the wheel when there are already promising approaches abroad, for example, to digitally determine the identity of citizens. This gives us the space and time to tackle country - and context-specific challenges - and there are plenty of them in Germany.

I only see my task at DigitalService as fulfilled when people in the country have the feeling that administration has become digitally accessible to them and that they can use services quickly and conveniently - when and where they want to.

How can Design Thinking help modernize administrative processes and services, and what role do Design Thinking methods play in your work?

We don't talk about Design Thinking in our work; however, our approaches, processes, and methods are very, very similar. Some of my colleagues have been at the HPI D-School like me and were immediately familiar with our processes.

Our field of work is software development and the design of administrative services. We start with a so-called discovery phase, in which we first narrow down and investigate the topic - for example, tax returns. We talk to people in the target group, observe how they have approached a task so far, and summarize and describe their needs and goals.

We only turn our attention to the solution space when we have analyzed the problem from the bottom up. This is new for public administration. Previously, we worked extensively on thick specification sheets. These contained many theoretical assumptions. We take a step-by-step, iterative, data-driven approach. We regularly test our designs with the respective target group in all phases of development. This approach ensures that we are on the right path and that our hypotheses do not remain untested for too long.

In our discovery and alpha phases, we effectively go through all the stages of the Design Thinking process. But that's not where our work stops. Our multidisciplinary teams develop scalable and secure digital administrative services that are continuously improved, extended, and tested along the way.

All the well-known principles of Design Thinking are practically applied in our work. We visualize a lot, test quickly, and take the user's perspective.

What projects is your team currently working on? What challenges but also opportunities for innovative public administration do you face?


[Translate to Englisch:] Martin Jordan


What projects is your team currently working on? What challenges but also opportunities for innovative public administration do you face?

We are working on several digital administrative services. We are developing these for and with various federal ministries and agencies. We launched a new service for submitting property tax returns at the beginning of July. Before that, we provided a tax guide for retirees and pensioners. In both projects, we make the topic of taxes easier for people to understand and guide them step-by-step through the process of filing a return. We conducted a lot of user research before and during the development of the services and regularly tested the interim results with users.

Designers, product managers, and software developers are all close to the users. They are involved in the initial discovery phase, they take notes in regular usability tests, they see and respond to incoming support requests.

The biggest challenge is not just to equip administrative services with better user interfaces but to fundamentally transform services across departments. This means revising internal processes, checking laws for their scope of interpretation, and making authoritative language more comprehensible to users.

Compared to private-sector services and also administrative services in other countries, the need to catch up is noticeable. At the same time, we are currently seeing a push in German administration that has not been seen in the past 20 years.

In 2010, you completed the Basic Track and Advanced Track at the HPI D-School. What is your memory of that time, and what influence does the learning and working culture you experienced there have on your approach to new projects and problems?

My year at D-School drastically changed my view of design and my career path. I had previously studied industrial, interface, and communication design at two other universities. User-centered processes and methods received comparatively too little attention there. That's why my time at the D-School reordered my understanding of design.

After that, I always chose organizations as employers that took a human-centered, iterative, and evidence-based approach to design. In all subsequent work contexts - first, at Nokia's mapping and navigation unit HERE in Berlin and later at the UK Government Digital Service in London - there was an established user research practice with a range of methods and regular involvement of users. Both to understand the actual problem and to test potential solutions. The early formulation of hypotheses based on qualitative and quantitative data and their rapid validation through prototypes is not the natural approach for every organization. However, over the last few years, senior management levels of international administrative units got wind of it and embraced this approach. For me, there is no alternative to it.

Two other valuable qualities I took away from my time at D-School were facilitation and process facilitation skills and the importance of regular presentations and sharing of interim results. I first discovered both of these aspects at D-School and have continued to develop them ever since, so that today they are unavoidable and of great importance in my work environment.

D-School has significantly influenced how and in which organizations I have worked and continue to work. While they may not use the same vocabulary of Design Thinking, the principles and practices of user-centered design applied are ultimately the same.