Lac Carling: Belgian IT ministry shows off electronic IDs

NIAGARA ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – When Frank Leyman tries to explain what the ideal form of e-government might look like, he shows a newspaper ad from a guy who claims to be able to fix broken PCs via telepathy.

The ad, which also promises to help with clients’ love lives and other problems, includes pricing information and all relevant contact details, noted Leyman, manager of international relations at FEDICT, Belgium’s federal IT ministry. Leyman gave the keynote speech at the 15h annual Lac Carling Congress for Canadian public sector CIOs on Sunday. “His back-end must be very well organized,” he joked.
Across Belgium, however, getting back-end systems and front-end applications together has been the No. 1 priority since the country began mandating electronic identity cards for all citizens over the age of 12. The eIDs are now the common access point for a wide variety of government services, from registering births and managing procurement to getting a can of beer from a vending machine.

Beglium’s philosophy towards e-government was developed by trying to think of what is important to both citizens and the public sector, Leyman said. This included speed, efficiency, transparency and low costs. A major issue, however, is recognizing the multiple layers of identity in every person, such as their personal details (gender, marital status and so on) and their professional credentials and associations.

FEDICT, which stands for Federal Government Information and Communications Technology Service  connects’ citizen data to the relevant ministries through a fibre optic network called FEDMAN, with a federated service bus that governs who accesses information. The eID card is the common key. Belgium attempts to keep version control and security n part by not replicating databases, Leyman said, and those in the public service can only access the information for which they have clearance, which limits the potential for misuse.  

While some citizens may balk at the idea of having to swipe an eID card on a routine basis, Leyman said the government offers a simple online tool called, which keeps a record of all the information Belgium has collected about citizens through the card, and which civil servants have accessed specific pieces of information. Citizens can then inquire why certain personal details were accessed. “Almost nobody goes there,” he admitted, “but this stupid little Web site does a tremendous amount towards generating trust from our citizens.”

Rather than building all the front-end applications that use the eIDs itself, FEDICT offers a series of developer’s kits that have been downloaded for free. Other sample applications include Police on Web, which citizens can use to send information about stolen property, and Tax on Web. FIDECT also provides middleware to read information on the cards and software modules to help municipalities set up their Web sites for things like electronic payments.

In her introduction to Leyman’s keynote, Treasury Board Secretariat CIO Corrine Charette noted that, like Canada, Belgium is a relatively small country of 11 million people operating in a federated environment with the European Union and contending with multiple official languages.

“Theirs is not necessarily an approach we would take in Canada,” she said, but added that it’s useful to learn from other countries’ experiences.

Leyman said Belgium is still working on training and education around the eIDs, which he said FIDECT underestimated. “CIOs, you’re going to die unless you become more like marketing managers,” he said.

FIDECT is also in talks with other EU countries about extending the functionality of the eIDS so they can be used outside of Belgium, Leyman said.

Lac Carling, which is produced by IT World Canada, continues through Tuesday.



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