Bureaucracy in Europe: Germany vs. France

Europe is well known for excessive bureaucracy. However, there are distinct differences between European countries in this regard. We’ve lived in just Germany and France, but even between these neighboring countries there are easily identifiable differences.

German bureaucracy involves a lot of paper, but it simply works. I was always receiving loads paperwork, all in German, in my Bremen mailbox. But in Germany I learned very quickly that I could generally trust that the documents were prepared correctly. There were too many for me to actually translate. Additionally, documents from German organizations were always delivered promptly. For reference, and contrary to the situation in France, my health insurance card was delivered within a few days of signup. If I had to go to the Finanzamt or the Stadtamt, then some wait time was required, but the most important thing was for me to always have the correct paperwork in order. The Germans do sometimes make absurd document requests, like how they always want a diploma as proof of graduation, even though a transcript is far more appropriate for those of us from American universities. Apparently, to get married, a foreigner must get a document from his home country certifying that he has the right to marry (not already married, etc.). However, we’ve heard that this document does not actually exist outside of Germany and the other governments sometimes have trouble producing this made-up paper.

French bureaucracy involves a lot of paper as well, but I think it was slightly less than that in Germany. I wonder if this may have been slightly affected by the relative verbosity of the languages. It was much more important to read all correspondence in France. All paperwork is very slow in arriving and it is often incorrect. Health insurance cards in France take anywhere from 6 to 12 months for “fabrication.” I have no idea what they are doing during that time. Going to the Prefecture for simple visa or car registration tasks can require between 1 and 3 hours. The prefecture employees can generally be quite helpful, except when they are not. The best advice is, again, to make sure to have the correct paperwork in order before going to the Prefecture. They often send you (or you can find online) a checklist of all required documents for a given transaction. In France, they are a little more flexible than in Germany (and constant rule-bending likely leads to inefficiency), but bringing all of the requested documents is optimal.

A potential problem in Europe is the tenure of government employees. There is little motivation for them to be any more than mediocre workers because their jobs are secure. However, I didn’t really notice this in Germany, likely due in part to the strong cultural work ethic (it’s a stereotype, but it’s hard to argue its veracity). In France, this does seem to present a problem and there seems to be a lot of dead weight in the French government.

There is definitely a plenty of bureaucracy in Europe. Overall, my takeaway is that this is not an inherently bad experience. I’m much more concerned with accuracy than quantity. Note that here I am looking at this through a user experience lens. Bureaucratic structures have other costs and the opportunity cost of filling out paperwork may also significantly weigh on a society.

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