Imagine applying for a license plate, registering to vote, or enrolling your child in school via the internet. In Hagen, Germany this is all possible thanks to the virtual town hall.
Hagen's virtual town hall is wherever you want it to be
Residents of Hagen in North Rhine-Westphalia don’t need to stand in line at the city’s registrar office when they want to update their personal id cards. They just log on to the address www.hagen.de in the internet and start clicking their way through the city’s public service domain.
With several categories to chose from, Hagen citizens will find most of what they need when it comes to the local government’s administrative requirements. From name changes to social security card applications and automobile registrations, internet savvy residents can take care of nearly all the annoying bureaucratic tasks in the comfort of their own home.
It wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, people in Hagen had to go to the town hall just like everyone else in Germany. They had to wait in line and be patient until they were called upon by one of the overworked civil employees.
Then in the year 2000, the municipal government began putting its pubic administrative services online. Today, thanks to an initiative financed by the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hagen is one of the very few "virtual cities" in Germany.
According to city statistics, some 20,000 residents rely on the Hagen internet site to take care of their administrative tasks. That’s not a bad usage rate for a population of 200,000.
Electronic town halls like Hagen’s represent the trend for future communication between government and citizens. From the local level up through the national and European levels of government, politicians are eager to get people and services wired up.
At the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover, several governmental and business groups were on hand to demonstrate the organization and financial benefits of establishing complete e-government systems.
Despite the initial costs, online services save time and money, both for citizens and government.
As a spokesman from Interactive World Media Systems, the company that programmed the software for Hagen.de, told DW-WORLD, "the idea is to save citizens the time and hassle of a visit to the town hall. There are no closing hours online." And, he added, "public employees don’t spend valuable time opening letters and filing them."
How does it work?
An easy to use and intuitive navigational structure allows ordinary citizens quick access to the various different components of city government. Everything from culture and construction to taxes and transportation is grouped around a central axis. Mouse-over effects inform the user of the various services available.
Once the user selects a category, he or she continues clicking through and downloading information whenever desired. Necessary forms and registration cards are also available as PDF (Portable Document Files). Users can fill out the forms directly online before printing.
The next phase of the system is still in planning. But in the near future Hagen citizens will be able to forego the printing and submit filled out forms via a secured pdf transaction directly to the appropriate city office.
Personal data is protected under the German information act, and violations of the private sphere are taken very seriously. For this reason security online is a major concern.
According to Interactive World, Hagen citizens are still leery of filling out an application online. They fear it is too easy for a hacker to break into the system and download the personal data. Therefore, sending and receiving documents is currently only available in a limited form.
This will probably change once more secure forms of data transaction are available and once software comes out on the market to notarize the authenticity of electronic documents and prevent them from being copied.
The Hagen model
At CeBIT the Hagen website was hailed as a role model for other cities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Germany. If the project proves successful and meets all the requirements for stability and security, the state government will begin to introduce it in other city and local government offices.
The goal is to get as many people as possible online. Not only does it save time and money, advocates say, it increases citizen participation and contributes to the democratic process.
Hagen’s virtual town hall is a good example of this. When the mayor and city officials hold live meetings, they also appear in the internet at the same time. An avatar, or cyber figure in the form of the mayor, makes this possible. The virtual mayor opens up the town meeting and answers any questions Hagen surfers may have. In reality, the figure is a member of the city council who is appointed to the job of internet manager.
Online chats during the virtual town meeting are of course always possible, and help provide the real mayor and decision makers with important feedback on the citizens’ opinions.
Whenever it comes to a controversial issue, the mayor can always put out his feelers by testing the online citizens’ responses first. In the case of Hagen, this is a questionable downtown renovation project. Registered Hagen residents can vote in the online poll and e-mail their comments directly to the mayor’s office.
Through the virtual town hall, Hagen has been able to get more people to participate in the city government, said a spokesperson for the city’s website. These are people who might ordinarily be limited by time or other physical restraints and have discovered that through the internet they have a say in their city’s government. This is the best benefit of e-government.