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New platform underpins flexible e-government services

Finding ways to deliver services online, and so reduce costs and save taxpayers’ hard-earned money, has been a long-held ambition for many public administrations. Now a new platform for providing secure e-government services has become well established in Germany, and is being promoted across Europe.

Developed by ‘bremen online services’ (bos) and showcased at recent trials in Germany, Italy and the UK, the CERTISERV platform is designed to handle a wide range of online transactions between public administrations and other administrations, businesses and citizens.

CERTISERV uses the emerging Online Services Computer Interface (OSCI) protocol and employs Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to ensure the security and trustworthiness of transactions. And, because it is based on open standards, the platform ties in easily with the legacy systems of public administrations regardless of whether they are running proprietary or open source software.

“The advantages of a solution such as this are evident for public administrations,” notes CERTISERV project coordinator Frank Schipplick of bos in Germany. “They are able to bring services online securely and relatively easily, and the scalability of the platform allows it to be used for a broad range of services and applications.”

The market for a platform such as CERTISERV is especially large at a time when public administrations are trying to bring more services online in an effort to reduce costs and increase efficiency. In Germany, the secure e-government solutions provided by bos are being deployed nationwide at both the regional and state level.

“The platform is being used in Germany by fourteen of the sixteen Länder to provide a range of services. In Bremen alone we have thirty to forty different services operating over it,” Schipplick notes.

In Bremen, one of these services is dealing with requests to local courts from citizens and companies for judicial orders demanding debt payments. “Previously it used to take three courts to handle the paperwork, now the service has been brought online only one court is needed to process the requests,” says Schipplick. “Across Germany around twenty percent of such orders are now being handled online.”

Schipplick points out another advantage of the system. “The local social security office in Bremen used to spend one hundred thousand euros a year on postage stamps to contact doctors by mail. Now that it is contacting them securely via the Internet, that money is being saved and can be put to use elsewhere.”

Given the system’s success in its German homeland, the goal of the CERTISERV project was to take it further afield with trials in Bologna in Italy and Sheffield in the United Kingdom. In Bologna, it was used to bring two services online, one of which consisted of a system for contacting and exchanging information with citizens. The other was a supplier portal to manage interactions between the municipality and the companies that provide it with goods and services. However, the introduction of a new Italian law on e-government services has stalled further deployment for the present.

In Sheffield, the CERTISERV platform provides three different services. “We set up an e-consultation service for citizens, and a service to allow electronic forms to be digitally signed so that municipal departments could quickly order outsourced services. The police could use the e-forms to order emergency street cleaning from the local cleaning company, for example,” Schipplick says. “The third service allows e-mails to be digitally signed in order to ensure the integrity and security of messages sent between different departments that contain citizens’ private data.”

The system’s core component is a common middleware platform that connects different service providers and handles the central functionalities of the system, such as gateway access, integrity and signature assurance. Messages and encryption are also handled by central components.

“The public administration using it does not have to worry about the technology – only the applications,” Schipplick says. “It is an application-independent technology that provides secure and legally binding communications.”

The level of security it provides can be adapted according to the needs of the service, with both software-based and smartcard certificates being used.

“What we saw is that the types of e-government services that need to be provided in different countries vary greatly. In Britain, for example, there is a lot of consultation with citizens over policy, something that doesn’t happen in Germany. In that sense, the development of the e-consultation system in Sheffield highlighted the adaptability of the platform,” Schipplick says.

Schipplick estimates that a small-scale implementation of the system by a public administration to bring several services online would cost between 50,000 and 60,000 euros. “After the initial investment, the cost savings are considerable over time,” he says.

The CERTISERV partners are now seeking partners in different countries working in the field of systems integration. “So far we have been in contact with public administrations elsewhere in the United Kingdom and in Bulgaria, Finland, France and Switzerland,” Schipplick says.

Jernett Karensen | alfa
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