Actually, the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) should be one of the most important authorities in the corona crisis. It is important that the population knows about the risk of infection and that people behave correctly in everyday life. But in the middle of the pandemic there seems to be a lot going on in the higher federal authority based in Cologne. In the midst of the pandemic, the authority could soon be left with only a provisional line.
The Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) has not extended the contract with the previous director Heidrun Thaiss – she will now retire at the end of January, as the BMG explains: “As is generally the case with the start of retirement.” After a questionable appointment procedure, the Ministry appointed their deputy head as acting director. He is a trained business economist, not a medical or communication expert.
Apparently the ministry had already chosen a successor. The job advertisement was only published on a server of the federal government, with a short application period. The form and deadline of the job advertisement were made with the aim of completing the selection process “in good time before the job holder leaves”, explains the BMG at the request of the Greens in the Bundestag – and gets entangled in contradictions. According to the ministry, the tender was drawn up “in a coordination process lasting several months”.
Ultimately, the house of Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) failed with the appointment process: Instead of a new line, Thaiss’ vice Martin Dietrich appointed it as acting director for the period from February. “The selection process has been temporarily suspended,” said Spahn’s spokesman on request.
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He denied legal errors in the tender. The BMG had chosen this path “in good contact with the staff council and the current management staff”, since the authority “is best managed by someone from the company himself in the current stressful situation”, he explained. When asked, the spokesman even called the selection process over.
“The replacement of the management position must be based on transparent criteria,” says Kirsten Kappert-Gonther, Member of the Greens in the Bundestag and spokeswoman for her group for health promotion. But in addition to the open questions about the selection of the management position, the BZgA is also criticized in terms of content. It “does not adequately fulfill its important function”, says Kappert-Gonther. Health education of the population is “a key to coping with the corona pandemic”. In terms of a high willingness to vaccinate, “information must be prepared in a broad and understandable manner,” she says. But apparently also due to a lack of confidence in the capabilities of the authority, the BMG has taken the lead here.
The BZgA, like the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), was “significantly involved from the start,” explains Sabine Weiss, Parliamentary State Secretary in the BMG, when asked by the Greens. The first “ad hoc campaign” on the novel coronavirus was “helped to shape and largely carried out by the authorities” at the end of January 2020. But at that time it had become clear that communication for ongoing information, sensitization and necessary behavioral changes of people had to be “structured and intensified”.
The BZgA is “just as visible as the RKI” on the website of the “Together against Corona” campaign, which was launched later. However, unlike in previous BZgA campaigns, the response had to be prompt. In the future, too, the authority should not be in charge of communication: As part of the “overarching awareness-raising and information campaign of the BMG”, the BZgA will only “develop partial campaigns and implement them either itself or together with the BMG”, according to the Federal Government’s response .
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At the beginning of 2019, the BMG initiated a further development process for both the organization and the content of the BZgA, according to the ministry. A control center has been set up in the management area of the BZgA, Internet presences have been optimized and the establishment of a central registration office has been initiated. “Further steps are in preparation”, explains the BMG – there should be “an organizational streamlining and content restructuring”. It is also about more flexibility so that the BZgA can react promptly to current requirements. “No other institutions are involved,” explains the BMG briefly. It also gives a brief answer to questions about the systematic evaluation of the agency’s work: “The last evaluation of the BZgA took place in 2012. No evaluation is currently planned.”
While science was a central topic in earlier job advertisements of the BZgA, this was completely missing in the current advertisement for the management position. However, the BMG denies that the BZgA has made compromises in this regard. “The BZgA is a recognized and successful institution in the field of science,” she writes.
However, the Science Council already had critical comments on this topic in 2008, saying that more articles should be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The BMG now explains that their number has “only been systematically recorded since 2018”. In 2018 and 2019, a total of 22 articles appeared in peer-reviewed journals or were in the peer review process.
It is good that Spahn recognizes the need to restructure the BZgA, says Green MP Kappert-Gonther. “At the end of the restructuring, there should be a politically independent and well-equipped public health institution.” However, the further development of the should not be at the expense of its research activities. “The professional competence of the authority is a prerequisite for an independent health education.”
This article first appeared in the non-profit online magazine MedWatch.