2. The Project
In generalized terms, access to electronic services requires the distribution of three technological means: Internet access, security (signature/encryption) technology, and payment technology. Internet access so far is not widely available in the home and in the workplace. In Germany in 2000, about one-third of the population was believed to be online (in the US, this figure was believed to be twice as high). This leaves the majority of the population unconnected. Many governments want to address this gap with kiosks. These are self-service machines like ATMs. In Bremen, experience with information-only kiosks has been very disappointing. Usage is low, while the cost for maintenance and for the hard shells needed to prevent vandalism is expensive. In addition, public services require explanations which can better be provided by humans. For these reasons Bremen is applying the concept of assisted access points, where regular PC-units are made available at public places, such as city offices, community centers, or schools. While saving costs, this approach has the additional advantage of providing in-person assistance.
An important element at the technological center of electronic government is electronic signatures. In essence, electronic signatures, according to German law rest on an asymmetric cryptographic procedure. In order for them to be secure, one component, the private key, has to be issued to its holder in a smart-card, where it can not be manipulated. The other part, the public key, has to be held in a public directory maintained by a so-called trust-center. Software can then be used to encrypt and decrypt as well as to prove identity and integrity of messages. For the user, this means he has to acquire a signature card and a card-reader. Bremen Online Services tries to foster distribution of electronic signatures by trying to integrate them on German banking cards, which are held by most Germans.
This seems to be advisable because most transactions requiring signatures also involve payments, either as a price for a service or a fee for its delivery. Consequently, online services have to provide for online payment methods. Bremen Online Services will offer payment by debit notes and remittance, as well as prepaid smart cards. A fourth option, credit card payments, is not being accepted by German public administrations because of the comparatively high fees. This might change in the future. Also, since private service providers are more open to accept this form of payment, Bremen Online Services will offer this feature as well.