Council offers citizens digital identities

One borough council, at least, is doing its bit to forward e-government plans

Bracknell Forest borough council hit the headlines Wednesday as the first in the UK to offer its citizens secure digital identities.

This will allow its 110,000 residents to pay their council tax online and access information on planning applications. Other services are planned for the coming year including allowing residents to report grafitti, broken streets lights, etc. It is hoped the system will cut down on bureacracy and speed up the processes of local government.

Chief executive of Bracknell Forest Gordon Mitchell believes the launch of the portal will "narrow the gap between the bureacracy of authorities and and individual needs of citizens". "It will save people with families and limited time and people with mobility difficulties a trip into town to deal face to face with someone," he says. "We have taken a giant step towards developing a dynamic and interactive relationship with our citizens."

The government plans to make all of its services available online by 2005 and currently a third of councils have at least three services available electronically. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' Local Government Modernisation Team is responsible for ensuring all local authorities comply. Team member Simon Norbury admits that the government has not yet worked out the criterea for "electronic delivery" but claims standards will emerge as the 2005 deadline approaches.

He believes it is important that the £350m allocated to assist local authorities with developing electronic systems is not spent on "ICT (Information Communications Technology) for ICT's sake" and points out that councils need to be careful they do not create a digital divide. To combat this coucils must ensure online services can still be accessed offline and that public Net access points are available in libraries and community centres.

The system behind the digital identities being used by Bracknell is developed by software firm Novell. The managing director of Novell Steve Brown claims it offers a "high degree of security" and will be transferrable in residents move to other boroughs with similar systems. It also complies with the interoperability standards laid down by the e-envoy's Cabinet Office team. Users need to enter a password and user ID and their is a graded authentication system depending on how much security users want.

Novell is developing smartcards which could replace the current system. Bracknell's Mitchell acknowledges the privacy concerns that have been raised regarding ID cards but believes the government should actively promote the "positive benefits".

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