Council IT manager calls for Whitehall guidance on plans for user authentication

New system means Medway Council is set to meet the e-gov deadline, but there is no point rolling out smartcards if ID cards will...

New system means Medway Council is set to meet the e-gov deadline, but there is no point rolling out smartcards if ID cards will contain digital certificates

Medway Council is on course to hit the 2005 e-government target after deploying document management software to support its e-forms service. However, some services are being delayed in the face of uncertainty over government plans for national ID cards.

Since Christmas the council has launched more than 100 e-forms to improve service response times and reduce the bureaucracy of its paper-based processes.

Services such as the registration of births, adoptions and marriages, as well as the facility to make complaints and enquiries, are now available online. The system is based on Adobe Intelligent Platform software.

Richard Lynn, ICT project manager at Medway Council, said, "We are 91% there. There are 600 to 800 council interactions in the Interchange of Data Between Administrators programme that should be made electronic in some way, but about 10% are tied up with authentication and there are political obstacles. We need clear direction from the government."

Lynn said the council has looked at authentication using methods such as digital certificates and smartcards, but he said the question mark hanging over the national identity card is delaying its plans.

"A digital certificate might be incorporated into a digital identity card," he said. "We do not want to spend money on public key infrastructure and digital certificates left, right and centre at a huge cost if there is an alternative using the Government Gateway and ID cards."

Developments such as pre-populating forms with personal data which require authentication are on hold. "Digital certificates would sort that out," said Lynn.

With the Adobe software, the council can go forward with authentication if needs be. "We are playing with it here," said Lynn. "Our platform has digital certificate, e-forms and workflow technology."

Lynn believes it is necessary to have all three components, otherwise organisations risk "hitting a brick wall". He said, "E-forms without workflow would result in no business change. They would just be forms on the web. You would be overwhelmed by e-mail."

The forms are securely passed to the correct member of staff, logged and processed. An acknowledgement page is generated and users can track the progress of requests or complaints via the website.

Feedback forms about ease of use attached to the e-forms have allowed the council to focus its development efforts on improving the service, rather than "second guessing", said Lynn.

The software includes XML functionality to facilitate the exchange of data. "It was a challenge at first. We had to learn how to use it and develop forms in XML," said Lynn.

"Benefits of XML include taking just four days to integrate all the forms with our e-payment system. Being able to pay online is a big pillar of any online service. We now insist on any software we buy being XML-based."

Lynn put an emphasis on security during development because of public fears about the safety of data on the internet. "We use Secure Sockets Layer and on the web pages there is a padlock to make people feel confident about security," said Lynn.

Lynn expects the automated system's return on investment to be substantial because of savings in administrative costs, copying and delivering paper. The council is proposing to use the software to deal with internal workflow processes such as payroll to reduce internal costs.

Lynn said that as the council expected the public to use the non-paper-based methods, there would be no excuse not to adopt the same approach internally.

Read more on IT risk management