Dorothee Bär: “Politics is something to be learnt.”
‘Air taxi’ is what comes to most people’s mind when her name is mentioned: Dorothee Bär. But there is a lot more to the State Minister for Digitalisation – since well before she entered the main arena ‘federal government’. 84 thousand followers on Twitter, 23 thousand on Instagram. The former HfP student knows how to present herself – frequently tongue in cheek – and is at home in the digital world like hardly any other politician. For more that 20 years she has politically been dealing with digitalisation. Here, she never loses sight of her target: a digital transformation of Germany, whose new technologies benefit the people. Dorothee Bär on her busy life between Berlin, the digital world and raising kids, and on why perfectionism is a show stopper.
Ms Bär, Twitter, Insta, Facebook. Which one does a State Minister for Digitalisation check first in the morning?
Preferably Instagram. But most of the time I open my text messages – very traditional – because these are the most personal messages. Probably in this order: text messages, WhatsApp, then Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. I open emails last, because there are always so many. But I always try not to get carried away in the morning because it’s such a time sink. You easily lose 20 minutes. I have also disabled all push features. It would drive me insane to see all the messages all the time. This way I only see calls … and FC Bayern goals.
Since March 2018 you are responsible for digital issues on the federal level. How did that happen?
I have been dealing with digitalisation for 20 years. I started doing that long before I was a member of the Bundestag [the German federal government]. Neither my party nor the Bundestag had many people who promote digital policies and have the necessary know-how. Consequently, the responsibility was assigned to me. My concern is: where is digitalisation and technology useful for the people? And not the other way round.
I have already been dealing with digitalisation for 20 years.
So TUM is just the right place for you.
Yes. Definitively. That is why I enjoy coming to TUM. Today for example, I visited the Hyperloop Team at TUM in oder to find out more about the project’s technology and progress. I have already met Elon Musk personally and I think the Hyperloop competition he initiated is extremely exciting. We can be proud to have a German team leading it. Many people could benefit from such a Hyperloop as a future mode of transportation.
How come you are interested in technology and anything digital?
Probably because I have parents who have always been open towards technology and computers and supported my brother and me from an early age on. My brother turned into a tech-savy nerd and I was mainly hooked on the theoretical side of the topic. He built things, programmed and hosted LAN-parties at our house. Later on he studied Computer Science. I was a very good theorist. I came upon digital politics because he introduced me to publications, for example of Chaos Computer Club – basically literature you would not usually read as a politician.
But then as a teenager you were more interested in politics than in LAN-parties after all. As a 14-year-old you joined the Junge Union [Young Union of Germany is the youth organisation of the two conservative German political parties, CDU and CSU], and with 16 the CSU. What gave you the idea to become a member of a political party?
I wanted to make a difference in my home town. At 14 you already feel incredibly grown-up and I wanted to do something for the younger ones. I campaigned for the municipality to replace the broken playground equipment. I also implemented river clean-ups and anti-drug exhibitions. It was all very much limited to my local area.
So as a 14-year-old you knew: “I am going to be a politician.”
Not at all. Initially I did it as a hobby. And then it just happened like that. I like that you can’t really plan a political career in Germany. It’s not necessary to study at an elite university like in France in order to become a politician. Here, even a university drop-out, who worked as a taxi driver, became the foreign minister. I think this social mobility and low-threshold is a good thing. After all, the Bundestag and the state parliaments are supposed to reflect a cross-section of the population.
How did politics become your career?
Originally I wanted to become a journalist and deliberately chose to study at the Bavarian School of Public Policy (HfP). From the first to the last day I was very happy there and would do the same all over again any day. Since the HfP is now a part of TUM, I even studied at a Technical University of Excellence (laughs). While studying I kept being very involved in politics. Based on that and at age 22, I was asked if I wanted to stand as a candidate for the Bundestag. Initially I declined because I thought: “Well, at this age you don’t have to.” But then at 23 I was nominated and at 24 I was voted in.
What or who changed your mind?
Edmund Stoiber. He asked me several times. Eventually I thought: “You can’t keep complaining about the parliament being full of beer-bellied 70-year-olds and then not use the opportunity to run yourself.”
You made it into the Bundestag at your first attempt. Then what happened with you and digitalisation?
16 years ago there was nothing at all on this topic in the Bundestag. I went to the Culture and Media Committee’s sub-committee on new media. That was awful but my only option to deal with politics remotely related to digitalisation. There was nothing about economy, technology, education and research. Then, years later the Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure for formed. I became State Secretary there because the digital sector was included in the transport sector. When the time came to finally create a separate domain for digitalisation, my party leader specifically chose me based on my years of experience. Something which is not always done in politics, because it’s not always necessary. But in this case it was obvious of course. I already had a certain standing.
Politicians are being criticised a lot and the media oftentimes is not very nice. What motivated you to carry on and to steadily climb the political ladder?
Repeatedly there were moments, such as the regional assemblies of Junge Union, the national conference and of course the debates, in which I knew: “That’s why I am doing it.” To fight for the best ideas, to struggle, to stand up for something and then win from time to time, or lose from time to time– that is what fills me with enthusiasm. Yet to me, moments of success are not praise but important lessons on how to gain majorities in a democracy. That is not something trivial. After 16 years in the Bundestag I strongly believe: politics is something that has to be learnt. Somebody who started very early, who spent his or her free time advocating for a certain topic, sometimes for years, will be able to cope differently with occasionally being defeated by a political group. Someone new to politics, who never learnt how to win a democratic voting will frequently just say: “This is how we do it” when in charge. And then everybody has to do it that way because he or she is the boss.
Have you experienced such a boss?
Yes, these personalities are especially noticeable in the media (laughs). Yet, this is not always the best approach. Naturally, one can argue about whether a majority vote is always the best option, too. But I believe our form of government is the best. Even though it frequently is laborious and time-consuming, which presents immense challenges to us, especially in digitalisation.
Which challenges are these?
We have to make the leap from a successful industrial nation to a digital nation, but without betraying our values. We strive for a value-based, ethical digitalisation, in which discussions and progress must not exclusively be driven by technological progress. That sets us apart from many other countries. This is only possible if you have learnt how to do politics, and if it’s not the end of the western civilisation for you to lose a vote or to be criticised from time to time.
Which strategies do you still have to digitalise Germany?
One of our most recent projects is the Federal Government’s Digital Strategy. Here the aim is for all public services to be available to citizens online. However, on a large scale it does not makes sense to develop a strategy for the next 20 years. The digital world is changing so quickly that one or two years later everything can already be outdated again. I am convinced that we could be all the way on top if we overcame our typically German tendency to be naysayers. For science this is an important development, too. Imagine a near future in which ‘Made in Germany’ is also a quality label in the area of artificial intelligence or Blockchain.
Do you remember the first time you were criticised in politics?
Eight away with 14. The Junge Union did not exactly have a feel-good atmosphere. Back then, I was almost the only girl. If there were women, they were already very old – around their mid-, end-thirties (laughs). Even at that time during my voluntary work I needed a very high frustration tolerance. When I came home and was upset about something I always hoped my parents would comfort me or my father would say: “Oh dear, you poor thing.” But he didn’t. He said: “Thick skin or quit.” I didn’t want to hear that but it was of course correct and eventually got me this far.
Today you are a parent yourself. How do you support your kids concerning their future? For example with regard to gender stereotypes and women in MINT?
I take my kids everywhere and show them a lot of technology. At the moment our son is ultra-interested and the girls not so much. The middle one is seven years old and my brother gave her a robot kit for christmas. I have to admit, in the first seconds I thought: “Why is he not giving that to our son?” In the next split second I scolded myself for thinking that. Because even though she might not totally be into it yet, it is important to offer it and that all of them have the same opportunities. I gave a Canadian friend’s shirt to my oldest daughter that says: “Girls love Math”. In Germany all there is are shirts roughly saying: “I am an idiot at Maths”. I always encourage her: “You have to tell yourself every day: ‘I LOVE MATHS!’ and one day you will.” She is not entirely convinced yet (laughs), even though she is very good at maths.
How digitally do you raise your children?
I pay a lot of attention to quantity and quality and am strict, especially because I know the bigger picture. This frequently leads to discussions. Of course my children see me use digital media all day long and I have to explain the difference a lot. But I don’t keep them away from ‘evil dangers’. Instead I am trying to raise them in a way that allows them to navigate the analog-digital world in the best possible way. This also applies to conventional TV. On an Advent Sunday they showed the classic fairytales from Czechoslovakia an TV. Here I made an exemption and they were allowed to watch more than just half an hour. But otherwise I usually set a timer.
What about apps and smart phones?
So far only the oldest has a mobile phone. I have the code and could access it anytime. But I don’t have to. She is very reasonable. However, to still have sovereignty is important to me. But I don’t keep my children away from new technology. My son used to be very wild when on the changing table. In the three minutes it took me to change him, he was allowed to use an app that is about combining two puzzle pieces. He never fell off the changing table, looked at the app for a few minutes a day and all was well.
Your husband is a full-time politician, too. How do you both organise family life?
Interestingly enough only I get asked that question, never my husband, even though everybody knows how extensive my job is. We both share the joy in being committed family people with large families. My husband grew up in a three-generation household, for me it was four. We are happy for our family to support us. Not everybody likes that. Many parents don’t want the grandparents getting involved in the parenting. We believe that children should have a legal right to grandparents.
Despite your stressful job you are spending lots of time with your kids and attend to your ‘motherly duties’.
My motto is: where there’s a will, there’s a way, somehow. But it’s not like every day is perfect in my life. And of course you can’t plan ahead for ages because something unexpected always happens. And, obviously, organisation is a big part of it but you can’t organise life down to each minute. With kids you need a lot of talent for improvisation, starting from day one. But this doesn’t just apply to working women. You can’t take everything so seriously and strive for perfection at all times.
Can you give us examples here?
When my daughter was still little I decided: I don’t have to win the award for the best cake at the kindergarten party. You have to disengage yourself from this competition to outdo one another, which especially mothers put one themselves. For example, I can’t clean up after my kids all day long. Sometimes our home looks like it has been hit by a bomb. But well, that’s just how it is. Taking on the pressure of what a mother is supposed to master nowadays, that’s not an option at all. That is what breaks people.
Isn’t it also the digital world, which particularly drives this competition to be perfect?
Through social media it is definitively harder to disengage from it. Sometimes I see on Instagram how parents post their children’s dinner: the cheese is being cut into star-shapes and with the help of a cookie cutter the cucumber takes on the shape of a cloud. And then everything is being prepared to perfection. At our house we sometimes make a sandwich with liver sausage. I could not post my kids’ food. It’s simply not an insta-match. But for me, that is totally fine.
Studies at the Bavarian School of Public Policy (HfP) 1999 – 2003
Dorothee Bär is State Minister in the Federal Chancellery, Federal Government Commissioner for Digital Transformation, CSU parliamentarian, mother of three children and a huge FC Bayern fan. She grew up in Ebelsbach in Lower Franconia and started her political career at age 14 at the Junge Union. Two years later she joined the CSU. After graduating high school she studied Politics at the Bavarian School of Public Policy in Munich and, at the same time, was involved in the Association of Christian Democratic Students [Ring Christlich-Demokratischer Studenten, RCDS] as the regional chairperson. After her intermediate diploma she switched to the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science of the Free University in Berlin, where she completed her diploma in 2005. Already at age 24, and while still in her studies, she became a member of the German Bundestag. In 2003 she was elected Deputy State Party Chair of Junge Union Bavaria and in 2008 Deputy Federal Chair. One year later she assumed offices as the Deputy Secretary General of the CSU and Spokesperson of the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group for the Division Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, which she held until 2013. She already had a chance to prove her digital know-how as the chairperson of CSU Netzrat (since 2010) and CSUnet (since 2011), and since 2013 as the State Secretary for Transport and Digital Infrastructure.