RIGA - They call it an IT investment in the future - 21.2 million euros to provide more efficient public services to Riga's residents and companies. Dubbed e-Riga, the 10-year project, developed by the Information Technology Center and the Riga City Council, is the largest such project that the Latvian capital has ever ventured into.
According to its creators, e-Riga's primary goal is to cut down unnecessarily wasted time and energy by replacing the complicated process of applying for government permits, certificates, payments and other services with an Internet resource covering all of these procedures.
Not only does e-Riga endeavor to improve the accessibility and quality of these services, but it also aims to enhance the efficiency of the local government as a whole.
The City Council currently has more than 300 services that it provides to the public but only three on e-Riga: the processing of childbirth benefits, certificates for land zoning and real-estate tax payments.
"Right now it takes approximately one or two months for residents to get government permits because they need to go from one department to another," says Eriks Zegelis, director of the City Council's Information Technology Center. "The main idea of this e-government project is to make this chain of activities possible through the Internet."
Development of the project was initially proposed in October 2002, when the Riga City Council signed a general agreement with its strategic partner, Microsoft Latvia. So far, the project has received great support from the City Council and Mayor Gundars Bojars, who is e-Riga's most enthusiastic advocate.
"I am really proud of this [support] because all politicians are responsible for some [strategic] direction," Zegelis says. "Somebody is always bringing up the need to put money into health, social needs, or for children and so on. But for this IT environment, we have the best supporter - the mayor of Riga."
As Zegelis explains, the project has been divided into numerous parts that will be developed over the next 10 years. The first step is to improve the internal structure of Riga's government within the next four or five years. This includes organizing government owned companies that provide services such as water supply and transportation.
The envisioned e-Riga project, inspired by projects in Hamburg, Stockholm, Vienna and other IT competitive European cities, will be a collaboration of some of Europe's most productive and successful e-government structures. "From each of these cities, we can take some interesting ideas," Zegelis says.
Of course, as with any project of such magnitude, there are a number of obstacles and problems that the ITC and the City Council must first overcome. One will be guaranteeing proof of identification online. At present the ITC has not yet accepted the latest technological development of the digital signature. As soon as it does, it will be possible to obtain a person's signature online and print it out with a personal identification number.
Public response will also pose a significant challenge for the City Council. The biggest task will be to encourage Riga's residents and companies to actually use this resource. To achieve that, the City Council has already planned a series of activities - including free Internet and computer skills courses - aimed at explaining the concept of e-government to young students, businessmen and retirees.
"For many of our residents it's very difficult to understand that we are spending some of their own taxes for e-project marketing," Zegelis explains. "We told them it's really necessary for their own needs, but they said it's our taxes, it's our money and for us it's not necessary."
Clearly, the project has a long and tedious road ahead in development, but Zegelis is confident that with the ITC's professional staff, the final project will be one of the best in Europe. "In the end this project will save money, people's time and the environment. It's an investment in the future," Zegelis says.
"If we want to be competitive with other countries, we must do this."