Austrian Efficiency? True! It’s a Miracle!

Ranked first in the EU, E-government in the Alpine Republic is now saving millions for business with online registrations

Austria’s savvy tech interfaces have been a boon to business | Photo: Alina Grigorescu

There is a word in Austrian German that seems to perfectly sum up the efficiency of your average bureaucrat: Amtsschimmel, a wondrous reference to the layer of mold-like dust collecting on government records. Or maybe, say others, the word derived from “simile” and the endless repetitive use of packaged phrases. Either way, the meaning is the same: bureaucracy works slowly.

Therefore it may come as a surprise that Austria is leading the way in scraping off the mold – thanks to the digitization of its processes and archives. In December, the country was declared the European Champion in E-Government for the fourth straight year during the Belgian Conference on E-Government.

“The overall goal was, you can do the complete process without paper,” said Christian Rupp, spokesperson for federal platform Digital Austria, the agency responsible for computerizing nearly every aspect of government work.

Though Austria has been taking steps towards a more paperless government for decades, it wasn’t until the 2004 Austria E-Government Act that the country started to become a model for Europe.

Rupp estimates that each year between 30 and 40 delegations from across Europe and the Arab world come to Austria seeking best practice guidance for computerizing government processes and systems.

If you wanted to pull up a law from December 1945, say, about restrictions on the schilling, it would take about as long as finding one that was passed last year. That is to say, seconds.

But the biggest gains to be had aren’t through looking up old laws or saving reams of paper, but in increasing the speed and ease of doing business.

“If you open a new company, you can do it completely electronically, without paper, without going anywhere,” Rupp said, adding that nearly all government services can be accessed even at midnight on Sunday.

Additionally there are dozens of Internet portals operated by the Federal Chancellery that provide one-stop shops on everything from conducting business to setting up health care. The most recent, which offers help to entrepreneurs, was launched within the last year.

The move online is an important one considering that by 2015, only two out of every ten jobs will require no computer skills.

All this was highlighted in the report “Doing Business 2011,” published in November by the World Bank ranking each country on the ease of doing business. Overall, Austria placed 32nd, but ranked first for its advancements in introducing electronic communication between notaries and the registry.

“[Each year] with all the electronic submissions instead of classical postman delivery, we save €1.7 million,” said Manfred Buric, an advisor with the Ministry of Justice’s Directorate for Central Administration and Coordination. He adds that the amount saved by the computerization of the land registry is enough to pay for high-speed computers to run the system as well as maintaining them.

The move to a paperless operation certainly has its broader monetary advantages. One of the most striking figures is how much was saved on postage. The Justice Ministry estimates that from 2007 to 2009, €11.2 million was saved by submitting electronic documents, approximately 8.8 million over three years that would previously have been sent through the mail.

The speed of transactions has also taken off.

“A digital database with registration from lawyers out to lawyers back, used to take us about two to four weeks. Registration now, within two or three days,” said Buric, adding that land registration cases began in the morning sometimes had made it to a notary’s desk by the afternoon.

The next big hurdle for E-government, Rupp said, is establishing cooperation across borders. A set of standards between countries must be put in place in order do things like setting up an Austrian company from Italy, accessing ones X-rays and medical records while on vacation in Brussels or sending an electronic bill to Bratislava.

While the next generation of social networks or computer processors is unlikely to originate here, Austria is setting the pace in how digitization can be used as a service. Many of the international delegations that Rupp deals with aren’t out to learn how to develop these innovations themselves, but simply how to put them into practice.

“It’s not a problem to transfer technologies, it’s a problem to implement them,” Rupp said.

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