ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

Java Card prototype
A Java Card prototype with a fingerprint sensor.

IT Solutions for Interstate E-Government

by Reinhard Riedl

Are interstate e-government services feasible for regions as heterogeneous as Europe? Is it possible to live without personal documents in paper? The simple answer is “Yes, indeed, but ... a project which tries to realise these visions will face serious convergence problems.”

We have investigated both questions in the European IST-project ‘FASME - Facilitating Administrative Services for Mobile Europeans’. And we involuntarily found out about the third item appearing above: “Is it possible to manage development projects for interstate e-government services?”

Our vision is global, mobile access to one-stop government, which is secure and trustworthy, which is user-friendly for all, and which respects European data protection laws. Basic requirements for such services are citizen process orientation, context-sensitivity and context-transparency, selectable system transparency, and service delivery without paper documents (on demand). In addition, service architectures should allow for integration with commercial services.

Migrating European citizens have to spend a lot of time to find information about the required administrative processes, unless this burden is taken over by a specialised department of their employer. The collecting of required documents costs a lot of time and money for citizens, while the issuing of legally valid documents still means loss-making transactions for the governmental authorities. Moreover, services for foreigners are on the average more time-consuming and expensive, than equivalent services for native citizens. This applies to both citizens and government agencies. Thus, on the one hand, one-stop government should provide both native and foreign citizens with the possibility to carry out all activities involved with migration in one transaction, while on the other hand, it should ‘automate’ the incurred work of clerks. The latter would give clerks more time to deal with citizens having more serious problems or it could alternatively reduce the costs of administration. Clearly, service provision should involve context-aware user guidance for all citizens, independent of their cultural background, their knowledge, and their expectations. Furthermore, knowledge management systems should support the human exception handling wherever necessary.

This requirements scenario is nearly ideal for basic research on e-government. It is easy to communicate, which makes interdisciplinary co-operation an easier task, but still it has a nearly maximal complexity, which stems from the heterogeneity of Europe. We may observe heterogeneity in Europe on all levels where it can be imagined: legal and administrative ontology, processes, work-flows, legacy systems, law, administrative culture, and knowledge and expectation of citizens. Any solution for international e-government must respect local traditions in order to gain acceptance from civil servants, but nevertheless it must achieve some soft standardisation of the necessarily digital communication. It must also bridge the cultural gap between local clerks and foreign citizens, which is usually created by knowledge deficits on both sides.

In the FASME-project, we have developed a holistic architecture for international e-government services, which fulfils the basic requirements of one-stop government depicted above (although access relies on trustworthy kiosks rather than mobile devices). In the requirements analysis, it turned out that electronic services were needed, which enable the citizen to initiate the creation of a trustworthy digital version of a personal document at a remote agency. This once again stressed the importance of the question about the need for paper documents. Further, the citizen must be enabled to control the secure transfer of an ad hoc generated document to a selected agency. This is only possible if a dependable, scaling solution for digital identity and for inter-organisational information exchange is available, one which respects data protection guidelines.

Therefore, two key components of the FASME deliverables were the design and implementation of digital identity and the realisation of the citizen-controlled ad hoc transfer of information from one agency to another. Thereby, the project has emphasised seven basic engineering principles for international e-government:

  • Framework: The phases of service processes should be modelled on documentation and document handling.
  • Separation and flexibility: Digital identity and services have to be separated. Solutions for digital identity must support flexibility with respect to trust for both government agencies and citizens.
  • Context management: User guidance has to provide foreign citizens with knowledge on the local administrative system. Context sensitivity of service delivery includes cultural issues and must not violate context transparency.
  • Materialisation: User acceptance for digital identity depends on materialisation and visualisation. Physical aspects have to be tested for acceptance in the specification phase.
  • No consistency: The system must not try to handle personal data of citizens on a global scale, rather it may only handle documents with statements about the local validity of well-defined personal data at a given time and at a given location.
  • No workflow federation: It is impossible to design inter-organisational workflows for international e-government, but a loose coupling based on the client/server paradigm is possible. It can be realised with document transfer via a well-structured virtual information transfer space.
  • Boundary objects: The complexity of problems requires the co-operation of experts from different disciplines and different countries, which in turn requires strict convergence management. The latter can be achieved with boundary objects as convergence products, but the role of these boundary objects must be clearly defined.

A thorough discussion of the above issues is beyond the scope of this article. In our architecture, a Java Card speaks in effigy of the citizen with the e-government application, after he or she has verified his or her identity with a fingerprint sensor. The citizen can control the ad hoc creation and transfer of digital versions of personal documents with the Java Card based on digitally signed document requests. In order to achieve information transfer across organisational boundaries, self-describing, time-stamped and signed XML-documents are used, whose DTD refers to a virtual ontology.

The feasibility of these concepts was demonstrated with a prototypical implementation, but work on this prototype and on concepts for its organisational implementation has pointed to lots of open questions, in particular with respect to digital identity. Nevertheless, we would like to stress the evidence produced by the project, that data protection and forensic monitoring of criminal activities can jointly be achieved. There is no need to give up data protection standards. Instead, we should design working concepts for digital identity.


Please contact:
Reinhard Riedl, University of Zurich and University of Rostock