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E-government: major work in progress

In the next few years, e-government projects should enable citizens to access information and services and perform transactions with public authorities online swissinfo.ch

The government’s stated aim is that Switzerland should become a world leader in electronic government.

This content was published on November 19, 2003 - 10:47

For the time being, however, the country’s federal system and the rapid spread of new information technologies mean that an enormous amount of work is still to be done.

“We are very well placed strategically, but when it comes to implementation we are behind other European countries,” admits Jürg Römer, who is responsible for the government’s information technology strategy.

The fact is that the government does not yet have an efficient internet platform allowing citizens and private businesses to find their way easily through the jungle of public administration.

It is therefore not surprising that Switzerland regularly comes near the bottom of tables comparing the development and quality of e-government in Europe.

Federal system

The main reason for this is Switzerland’s federal system of government, under which public powers and administrative practices are shared – to an extreme degree – between the government, cantons and municipalities.

“Obviously it is much easier to set up a public electronic information service in a centralised country like France, where everything is focused on and decided in Paris,” explains Römer.

In Switzerland, however, the websites of the various government departments and offices give the impression of being poorly coordinated.

“There is no escaping federalism, even among our central-government ministries,” observes Regula Stocker, whose task is to coordinate the Federal Strategy Unit for Information Technology (OSIC).

New government strategy

Convinced of the usefulness of e-government, the government finally launched its new electronic administration strategy in 2002.

Work groups, committees and no less than twenty different projects should soon open the way to the establishment of an effective “cyber administration”.

One of the most urgent programmes is undoubtedly “eVanti.ch”, which aims to harmonise and coordinate the online presence of the various public authorities and make them more transparent.

Also of vital importance is the “ch.ch” website, designed as a virtual information desk directing citizens, businesses and institutions to the databases and services of national and local government departments.

“But it will take some years to achieve these objectives, because most of these services are supplied by the 26 cantonal and 3,000 municipal administrations,” explains Regula Stocker.

3,000 services available

“Altogether, the Swiss public authorities engage in some 3,000 different types of transaction with individual citizens and businesses. Of these, at least 200 are what we might call regular, frequently used services,” explains Bernard Ayer, who is in charge of e-government projects at the Federal Chancellery.

Some of these services are already available on line. For example, the citizens of Winterthur are able to perform around 30 transactions online, registering for services, notifying the authorities and ordering documents.

Some cantons enable citizens to complete and send in their income tax return electronically. In others, it is possible to download extracts from the companies’ register or the land register.

Security concerns

However, the development of electronic exchanges between public authorities and private citizens is restricted by security considerations: very often, the information in question is sensitive.

“We shall probably have to wait at least five years before digital signatures like those used in other countries are introduced in Switzerland. Meanwhile, though, it is possible to adopt other safety standards for many transactions, such as the two or three numerical codes used by banks,” says Bernard Ayer.

There are plans to use this standard in 2004 in experimental e-voting in canton Neuchâtel.

In Geneva, though, where preliminary tests were conducted this year, voters were required to state their date of birth and enter a 16-digit code printed on the voting papers, which were still distributed by post.

A third code was hidden under a special patch, as on a lottery scratch card.

Public mistrust

These pilot projects, which will also be conducted in Zurich, are expected to provide vital clues on how to overcome the public’s resistance to e-voting and e-government in general.

According to an opinion poll, published in August by the GfS Institute, around 40 per cent of Swiss are still suspicious of electronic government. A third are totally opposed to it.

Behind this attitude lie fears relating to security and data protection. In particular, many citizens fear being exposed to “big brother” control by the state.

As well as overcoming a number of structural problems, the Swiss authorities still have to persuade the people that electronic government is a good thing.

swissinfo, Armando Mombelli

In brief

In 2002 Switzerland ranked 15th in a comparison of the development of e-government in 18 European countries.

In February the Swiss government presented its strategy for introducing e-government and e-voting.

In 2003 the first experimental trials of e-voting, conducted in canton Geneva, were hailed a success.

According to a survey carried out this year by the GfS Institute, 30% of Swiss are opposed to e-government; 40% welcomes it, but only on condition that security and data protection are fully guaranteed.

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