"Is the state up to it? Drawing lessons from the pandemic"

15 November 2021

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier focused on one of the key questions of our time at the twelfth "Forum Bellevue on the Future of Democracy": What lessons can and must the state and society learn from the pandemic?

The event was particularly timely as it occurred in the middle of Germany's fourth wave of the pandemic. At the beginning of his address, the Federal President made an urgent appeal to the German public:

"Those who are not vaccinated are putting their own health at risk, and they are putting us all at risk. (...) I ask you once again: Get vaccinated! What's at stake is your own health, and the future of our country!" In light of the worsening situation, he asked those who are hesitating: "What would still have to happen to convince you?"

He also highlighted the fundamental necessity of combatting the pandemic and learning from it. As the pandemic has made clear, "we urgently need to bring our public administration up to speed - our state must become more capable of taking action, more agile and more open to innovation," he said. Later in his remarks he emphasized the freedom that scientists have and the political sphere's autonomy, the democratic interplay between legislative legitimacy and executive power, and the - generally acknowledged - need to modernize the German state and its public administration in light of the challenges.

The Federal President had invited three guests to join him for the subsequent discussion: medical ethicist and Chair of the German Ethics Council Alena Buyx, legal scholar Laura Münkler, and Vice-President of the State Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein Aminata Touré.

The debate's key questions: In which areas should conclusions be drawn for democracy and the state? What is preventing the knowledge gained during the crisis from being translated into institutional action? How can the state and politicians make use of scientific expertise in the future and how can this expertise be included in democratic processes?

"Our crisis memory is short-term memory"

In his opening address, the Federal President described our crisis memory as short-term memory. It is crucial, he said, "that we learn from the pandemic and develop our democratic state so it can respond even more forcefully to the major challenges of the future, especially since it is based on freedom and equality, even in difficult times." He noted that "the disputes between the executive and legislative branches, between the federal and state levels; the public dispute over restrictions and returning to normal life; even the problems with tests and vaccinations - all that has put the public's trust in the state and democracy to the test." In a democracy, he said, this trust is a critical trust based on skepticism and people's ability to judge for themselves.

In addition to the strengths German democracy undoubtedly has, the pandemic has revealed clear weaknesses as if they had been put "under a magnifying glass," the Federal President said. This includes "shortcomings in preparation and foresight, delays in digitalization, and hiccups in the interactions of various institutions."

The relationship between scientific advice and politics

One topic that was repeatedly emphasized later in the debate was the relationship between scientific advice and politics. Anyone who believes that researchers provide clear policy recommendations for politics and society has been disappointed, the Federal President said. He noted that science must be understood in its many disciplines, questions and methods as a never-ending learning process instead. "When politics hides behind science, (...) when politicians and scientists use each other to advance their goals, they weaken trust in science and in democracy," Steinmeier said.

Laura Münkler contributed her view on this point as a legal scholar, doubting whether it is possible in a democracy to strike a perfect balance between expertise and politics. Things always remain ambivalent, she said, even if there are parallels. The problem lies in the special nature of expertise, since it is more than just one opinion among many, but less than the truth or objectivity. Naturally, we must listen to experts, but at the same time we must make a democratic decision, she said.

According to Münkler, experts must advise politicians openly and comprehensibly, but politicians must ultimately be prepared to take responsibility for their policy decisions. The Vice-President of Schleswig-Holstein's State Parliament, Aminata Touré, echoed those remarks, warning against the diffusion of responsibility in politics and emphasizing the transparency of negotiating processes.

Call for an institutionalized crisis management team

During the debate it became clear that Laura Münkler and Alena Buyx were skeptical of forming an ad hoc body, a "Pandemic Advisory Council" for example. Buyx called instead for a permanent and diverse crisis management team that works across disciplines. She also noted that there is a disconnect in German society in terms of what has been accomplished and how it is perceived. People in Germany are doing far more to combat the pandemic than they often realize, she said, and that is having a direct impact on their trust in institutions. She also emphasized that, in her view, it is not so much a problem of knowledge, but of implementation. The need for more foresight reinforces the feeling of powerlessness, she said. She also advocated doing more to look ahead on an ongoing basis by expanding and institutionalizing scientific policy consulting, so that society is better prepared in the future even for crises that develop exponentially.

Interaction of federal and state levels

In his remarks, Federal President Steinmeier made it clear that he would like to see a lively discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Germany's federalist system in such times of crisis. Should the authority to make decisions basically remain at the state and local level depending on how public health events play out, or would uniform national regulations increase public acceptance?

Against the background of the upcoming meeting of Germany's state governors he asked Aminata Touré if, given the crisis that had unfolded in recent months, she felt the executive branch had overstepped its authority. Touré stressed that the executive branch had deliberately been given considerable leeway and that, at the same time, advice had been sought from experts across disciplines in state parliamentary committees. In her opinion, however, Germany's parliaments allowed themselves to be overshadowed during the time the state governors' regular meetings were being held.

Modernizing the state

The Federal President also emphasized that Germany' federal- and state-level public administrators must become more capable of taking action and more willing to innovate. This is particularly true, he said, given the outdated digital resources being used by government agencies, schools and the health-care system. Asked about which lessons should be learned for the future, Buyx agreed with the Federal President, saying she would like the German state and its public administration to become more proactive by reducing red tape and, above all, by eliminating sometimes contradictory laws and provisions, especially those governing digital activities.

In summing up the discussion, Federal President Steinmeier noted that a two-fold task exists: On the one hand, better precautions must be taken; on the other, this must not lead to excessive expectations about predicting and planning for developments in advance.