Can Berlin ever overcome its image as Germany’s eternal problem child?

A picture of central Berlin
Berlin's administration: a permanent construction site. Photo: dpa | Christophe Gateau
When most Germans think of their capital, they picture a city in debt that seems incapable of organising something as fundamental as an election, let alone an airport. One of the problems is bureaucracy. Can it sort itself out?

Berlin is used to being the butt of many a German joke.

First, there was the seemingly never-ending series of construction failures at its new international airport. Now in operation, BER is still running anything but smoothly.

Then, last month there was the chaos on election day, when ballots went missing or were mixed up in some 200 voting stations around the city. Voters had to stand around for hours and sometimes left without having had the chance to cast their ballot.


The state election committee determines the final results of the elections to the city senate on Thursday, but the election commission has already said that it will challenge the results in court.

‘Amazed at the patience of Berliners’

In the lives of ordinary Berliners though, it’s the smaller things that can be most frustrating.

On Wednesday, anyone trying to book an appointment online at the Bürgeramt (citizens’ office) for an ID card was told that everything is fully booked until December 10th. But after that date the online calendar stops.

Obtaining a birth certificate, registering a car or a new address – it’s all a matter of luck in Berlin because nothing seems to go to plan. 

People wait in line to vote in Berlin on September 26th.
People wait in line to vote in Berlin on September 26th. There was chaos in the city with some polling stations running out of ballots. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Monika Skolimowska

The pandemic revealed even more weaknesses, especially regarding digitisation. Only one in 10 public employees in Berlin was able to work in home office due to a lack of laptops.

“These are simply scandalous circumstances,” says Wolfgang Seibel, an administrative expert from Constance in southern Germany.

“I’ve always been amazed at the patience of Berliners. Waiting in line for days to get a Kita (childcare) spot, failing to get an appointment at the Bürgeramt or for a birth certificate – these are inconceivable conditions. One can only be surprised that people put up with it.”

Seibel, who was a member of a commission which presented proposals for improving Berlin’s administration in 2018, said that a radical reform of the city administration was the only solution.

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“As long as district administrations are not integrated into a unified city administration, Berlin’s problems cannot be overcome,” he says.

Seibel describes the power given to district administrations in Berlin as “completely absurd” and completely different to how things are done in Munich, Hamburg or Cologne.

“If I have one recommendation for the new city Senate, it is to bring in constitutional reform,” Seibel says, before admitting that it would be tough to do. “The districts don’t want to be deprived of their power.”

He adds that the government has a responsibility to its voters to change things. “Only the strong can afford a weak state,” he says.

‘Permanent construction site’

In 2019, the Berlin Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign called “One City – One Strong Administration” that pushed for the creation of a single city administration.

The trade association’s assessment of the impact of its campaign highlights the positives.

Administrators now listen more carefully to advice from the business community, they say. There have also been improvements to the time it takes to register a vehicle for commercial purposes.

On the other hand, some procedures appear totally out of date. For example, building applications need to be handed in in paper form – with up to four copies required.

“The modernisation of Berlin’s administration remains a permanent construction site,” the Chamber of Commerce concludes.

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