ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]
www.help.gv.at A Service Platform for Official Proceedings
by Brigitte Eichler
HELP (www.help.gv.at) is the national e-government portal of the Austrian government and a platform for all Austrian authorities to support official proceedings. It offers information, interaction and an increasing number of transaction services.
HELP (www.help.gv.at) was established in 1997 upon the joint initiative of the Federal Ministry of Finance and Telekom Austria AG within the framework of the administration development program. The Federal Computer Centre has been entrusted with the project implementation.
On 1 April 2000, responsibility for the contents of help.gv.at was assigned to the Austrian Federal Ministry of Public Service and Sports which was formerly attached to the Federal Ministry of Finance. HELP is a major contribution to the e-Europe initiative.
The e-government portal HELP is a national platform and a turntable on the Internet for all Austrian authorities to support official proceedings. HELP is strictly customer-oriented and focuses on the individual life situations of citizens (marriage, passport, childbirth etc), on life events of companies, and on all interactions with authorities relevant to these life situations and events. HELP does not pretend to be a superauthority, nor does it compete with authorities. Responsibilities for and in official proceedings are not changed by HELP.
The unique characteristics of HELP are the combination of its structure according to life situations and its organisational embedding on the highest level the federal government and the federal ministries. All Austrian authorities are invited to cooperate.
Electronic government services on the Internet are often classified according to three phases as: information services, interaction services and transaction services. HELP covers all three.
In 1997 HELP started as an information service, and information on life situations still forms the core of HELPs activities. Every life situation is explained in a simple and uniquely structured way, which includes the application form, the documents to be presented, the fees to be paid, special terms, and a series of useful tips.
The HELP homepage (see Figure) shows a list of all life situations for citizens on the one side, and a list of life events for companies on the other. These act as starting points (links) for all further information. Additionally, information on authorities (links and addresses), forms to be downloaded, and links to legal information systems are provided. A full text retrieval functionality provides a rapid and direct search in all HELP pages as well as in the entries of the guest book.
HELP provides a uniform interface to users for all contacts to public authorities. On the informational level, HELP provides links to the various federal, provincial and municipal authorities. This makes HELP a turntable, redirecting citizens automatically to the responsible authority. For this functionality a comprehensive database containing the regional structure and all public authorities of Austria is used, including basic data (name, address, telephone number, e-mail, etc), links to life situations and topics (qualified links), and responsibilities (relationships between authorities and regions).
The HELP system leads the user from a certain life situation or topic to the responsible authority based on his regional information (zip code or municipality), either by linking to the corresponding page of this authoritys website, or (in case a link is not available) by showing the authoritys basic data to the user. All links/URLs (uniform resource locators) are checked automatically at regular intervals. Where a link is not available, the responsible HELP partner is notified immediately by e-mail.
HELP operates on a high-performance web server (AIX, Netscape Enterprise Server, Oracle Application Server) at the Federal Computer Centre Ltd. in Vienna. All data and most of the programs are stored in an Oracle database.
The main interactive functionality of HELP is the popular guestbook, also structured according to life situations. Users may pose questions which are then automatically sent via electronic mail to the responsible partners (eg, experts in federal ministries). A dedicated web application is used by these partners to provide answers. In addition, other users can make comments. Answers and comments are automatically routed via e-mail to the asking user. Citizens can also help each other in this way.
In 1999, 2000 entries were stored in the guestbook. Last year there were more than 4500 entries, and by the end of October 2001 this number had increased to over 6800. More than 75% of the entries in the guestbook are questions, about 10% are suggestions for improvement, over 5% praise and about 5% contain criticism of public authorities, of HELP and of technical defects (some of which were caused by incorrect usage of the web interface).
The most outstanding development stage of HELP was and still is the possibility for users to handle complex official proceedings via the Internet. In mid-March 2001, a kind of prototype was established to allow users to fill in forms online and send them to HELP. Five official proceedings with fifteen partners Austria-wide (most of them municipal authorities) are currently supported. The official proceedings are:
Standardised interfaces (based on HTTP(S), HTML and XML) are provided to public authorities for accessing their applications and docking their software systems with HELP.
Virtual administration is the ultimate goal in the development of HELP. Legal, organisational and technical preconditions have to be established. Processes have to be optimised and organised in a more customer-oriented way. For example, technical prerequisites include the support of electronic payment services, smart cards, and various other devices (eg, mobile phones, personal digital assistants).
Once this phase has been reached, citizens will be able, in a single procedure, to handle all dealings with authorities required in a particular life situation. This true one-stop government is the vision of HELP.