Berlin Letter: Draconian public order looms via smartphone app

This latest initiative is proving divisive – with opinion split between approval and vexation

You might think Angela Merkel holds the power in Berlin. And you'd be wrong. The real power in the German capital rests with the Ordnungsamt – or the "Office for Order".

A supremely German invention, the Ordnungsamt is the non-police police who patrol the streets of German cities and ensure that you are not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing.

Think of them as parking wardens for your life, intervening to prevent litter, graffiti, loud noises and illegal barbecues in the park. If you are having fun, you can be sure your local public order officer is never far away.

Now Berlin’s Ordnungsamt have unveiled a new way of keeping order: a smartphone app.

Whenever you see something or someone out of order in Berlin, take a picture with your smart phone and submit it – including GPS co-ordinates – to your local Ordnungsamt.

The list of complaint categories is exhaustive, allowing concerned Berliners report everything from overgrown weeds and piles of rubbish to illegally-parked cars, building site noise at weekends or failure to remove dog poo.

Among the long list are some categories that could only feature in a city like Berlin: “Animal Carcasses” and “Naked Jogging (on the street)”.

The app has divided public opinion. Some welcome it as a means of tackling the chaos of the German capital, from broken traffic lights to permanently overflowing bins.

“It’s a way of tackling the anarchy that’s grown in Berlin in the last years where everyone does what they want with no fear of any consequences,” said Johannes Werner, a Berlin native.

But the app’s critics are concerned about the consequences of being able to file a complaint – anonymously if the complainant wishes – whenever you see someone peeing in public.

Will the app’s anonymous feature improve life for all, they wonder, or reawaken the denunciant slumbering inside many a Berliner – an unattractive trait that was last let loose with shocking consequences during the bad old days of the Third Reich and in East Germany?

“I’m terrified of the prospect of bored pensioners going on patrol, armed with their smartphone,” said one friend. “This app is a pensioner’s Pokémon Go, catch ‘em all!”

Others are doubtful about the app’s efficacy, creating extra work without any additional resources for already overloaded, understaffed public order offices.


But the public order offices dismiss such talk. Though there has been a huge jump in public reports via the app – a 100 per cent rise in parking offences reported – they say the system allows a more efficient use of resources when public order officers are making their rounds.

If anything, the new app has reawakened the tensions that exist towards these loved and loathed figures in Berlin.

This is the former capital of Prussia, a vanished state that operated on contradictions: simultaneously preaching the importance of public order – and codifying it for the first time – while also insisting on high levels of individual freedom. In the words King Frederick the Great: "Everyone should find their own salvation".

Given the city’s debts of more than €60 billion, Berlin city fathers have had to prune their public order spending in the last years, allowing free rein to the Berliners’ freewheeling side – the side that embraced generations of new arrivals.

But now the app has reawakened the deep-seated, unresolved tension between Berliners’ contradictory natures, as strong individualist, freewheeling lovers of state-imposed order.

"The app has gone down well," said Frank Henkel, interior minister in Berlin's city-state government. "This is an important aspect for a safe and clean city."

A divisive law-and-order politician, Henkel has had his first brush with his own public order app. Last week, an alert Berliner reported via the public order app a bus parked illegally on his street corner. It was a campaign bus for September’s state parliament election for . . . Frank Henkel.

After logging the complaint via the app, the Berliner took to Twitter to complain about the illegally parked vehicle.

Days after Henkel deployed hundreds of police to clear a squat in the city, the nameless Berliner said he would would like to see “police special forces and helicopters” remove the campaign bus.

Public order in Berlin? There’s an app for that.