German eGovernment Initiative Off To a Slow Start | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.08.2004
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German eGovernment Initiative Off To a Slow Start

The EU would like its citizens to use personal computers to do taxes and complete bureacratic formalities. But apart from a successful eGovernment project in Bremen, Germany still lags behind on an EU level.


This should be the future when it comes to dealing with bureacracy

Getting your own birth certificate in Germany usually entails a bureaucratic nightmare lasting several weeks. But a new high-tech project in Bremen has reduced the process to literally a couple of clicks.

All you have to do is order the certificate online from the registry office, you even sign the form right away on your computer. Within a couple of days, the certificate will be in the mail.

Kerstin Sprock who works for a private company that maintains online services for the city of Bremen is proud that the city leads the way when it comes to eGovernment in Germany.

"We realized very early that it's not just about information, but people also want to accomplish things. And Bremen stands out in the field, it has over 100 services that citizens can sign for with an electronic signature," Sprock told DW-RADIO.

Whether it's informing authorities about a change in address, applying for a car license plate or filling out a form for dog taxes, it's all possible via the Internet in Bremen, 24 hours a day and without spending time in long waiting lines at offices.

Electronic signature the show stealer

The chief attraction is the electronic signature which works a bit like withdrawing money from a cash machine. The user needs a chip card, an own scanner and a secret code.

Sprock says security is the main priority. "According to current technology, the electronic signature can't be cracked," she said. "Actually, the biggest security risk is at offices, in families and among friends. But one needs to go to great criminal lengths to even get close technologically to such a signature."

But there remains little doubt that the electronic signature isn't foolproof. Security concerns over eGovernment and other online services involving personal data have driven the European Commission -- which is pushing EU governments to make their bureaucracy more efficient, high-tech and user-friendly -- to set up a European agency for network and information security called ENISA. Its chief aim is to ensure that data protection guidelines are obeyed and that security standards of computers are constantly upgraded.

Bremen still hasn't witnessed any misuse of its electronic signature, but then few citizens of the northern German city have been making use of the online services. One of the chief reasons is that the card scanner and the chip card cost citizens around €50 a year.

But Sprock said the project was still a success among corporate users. "Several people from business and industry have told us that they usually have an own office to deal with bureaucracy -- now, naturally they can do away with it and save money."

Germany lags behind

The eGovernment project is underway in Bremen, Esslingen and Nuremberg. The three cities are supported by the German government with funds and know-how with the framework of a pilot project. But it's clear that Bremen is the trailblazer. Last year, it even won an award for its eGovernment project from the European Commission.

But, apart from the cities involved in the online pilot project, the rest of Germany's cities and towns remain far behind on the information highway. Though citizens can download official forms on the Internet almost everywhere, they still have to sign them by hand and then take the application to an office or at least to a mailbox.

That makes Germany a bit of a laggard on the European level when it comes to eGovernment.

Leading the way are the Scandinavian countries where on an average, citizens can accomplish over 80 percent of official services sitting at their computers within the comfort of their homes. As compared to that, Germans can wrap up just about 50 percent of official services at home, taking it to third place in Europe and only slightly better than Belgium and Luxembourg.

Despite the rising popularity and simplicity of eGovernment, Kerstin Sprock doesn't believe they'll ever completely replace government officials.

"For instance marriage: That's the most beautiful day of your life - who would want to spend it in front of the computer?"

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