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January 30, 2008

New electronic systems ease bureacracy obstacles

Opencard, Czech Point lessen personal record run-around

Whether they’re starting a business, filing taxes or simply reporting a change of address, locals have long learned that dealing with the government is no easy feat. With limited communication among individual offices, ordinary citizens are forced to navigate the tangles of a bureaucratic system that dates to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Now, with the official launch of Czech Point, a network of electronic access points providing easier communication with the government, the situation is finally improving.

Following the conclusion of the project’s pilot program last year, the Interior Ministry opened more than 800 stations this month, including the Jan. 22 launch of a Czech Point at the Czech Embassy in Berlin.

“The project should reduce overt bureaucracy in the citizen-public administration relationship,” said government spokeswoman Jana Bartošová. “Currently, a citizen is forced to visit several government offices to solve a single problem.” By providing access to all public records through one portal, Czech Point serves as a sort of extended arm of all government offices. This allows the public to communicate with the government in one place, “making the data — not the citizen — run around,” Bartošová said.

According to statistics published Jan. 25 by the Interior Ministry, more than 1,500 Czech Points currently operate at post offices and municipal bureaus throughout the country. Additional stations are located at the Czech embassies in Bratislava, Warsaw, Dresden, Berlin, Vienna and Washington D.C.

The terminals currently provide certified documents for frequently sought-out public records, including the land register and the commercial and trades registers. Most recently, Czech Point began providing access to criminal records, which allows applicants to obtain certified copies of their criminal records.

Individual requests are archived and recorded to prevent unauthorized access to personal files, and applicants are required to show proper identification and possess a national identification or birth number.

“This means the records are also available to any foreigner with a national identification number, including those with permanent residence status,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Vladimír Řepka.
Instead of requiring a return visit, information is found while you wait for 50–100 Kč ($2.80–5.60), which is comparable with current charges.

Way of the future

Eventually, Czech Point should provide access to all data stored in public registers. Future projects include access to driving records, which fall under the Transportation Ministry.

“In the project’s final phases, citizens will be able to take care of all their affairs from home via the Internet,” Řepka said.

Before Czech Point can be used to its full capacity, the government must first pass laws regulating electronic documents and access to public records. They include an e-government bill, which would give electronic documents official weight, and a more complex bill to streamline the public register system.

“Expanding the Czech Point project with other agendas will require legislative changes,” Řepka said.
Yet while the pro-business governing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) has invested numerous resources into drafting such legislation, it failed to win the approval of most citizens, who feared the bill would lead to a “Big Brother” monitoring system, according to a report published Jan. 4 by eStat, a local think tank promoting a more efficient government.

A capital system

With Czech Point terminals opening nationwide, individual municipalities are joining the effort to improve services through technology.

In Prague, a system called opencard provides residents with access to a range of city services with a microchip smart card.

By the end of the year, officials hope the card’s services will expand to all city bureaus, allowing residents to fill out documents including parking permits and city-issued bill payments through the city’s Internet portal or at the Opencard headquarters on Jungmannovo náměstí.

According to Prague Deputy Mayor Rudolf Blažek, the inspiration for Opencard comes from places such as London and Hong Kong.

“Each of these cities has implemented a smart-card service that best addresses the needs of its citizens,” Blažek said. “In Prague, it will be the same.”

Currently, the card may be used in place of a library card, or a charge card for paying parking fees in the city’s paid parking zones, and is available to anyone with a valid government-issued identification card.

“It’s a breakthrough moment,” Prague Deputy Mayor Markéta Reedová told the daily Mladá fronta Dnes Jan. 23. “When someone wants to take care of something or get some information, they have to run around from one clerk to another and visit each department individually. Now you’ll be able to handle everything from the same spot.”

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