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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 18:46 GMT
Bracknell Forest goes virtual
Bracknell Forest web page Novell
What Bracknell's cyber-citizens will see
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The citizens of Bracknell in the UK are getting digital identities as part of a plan to give them better access to council services.

Bracknell Forest Borough Council is issuing the identities to any of its 110,000 citizens who want to use the web to interact with the local authority.

Armed with their ID, citizens will be able to check on or pay council tax, find out who is being given planning permission, comment on recent council decisions and find out information usually only available at council offices.

Bracknell Forest is only one of many local authorities pursuing such plans as part of a larger aim to put all services online.

Everything online

One of the UK government's many stated aims is to ensure that by 2005 people can interact electronically with 100% of local council services. As a result, many local authorities up and down the country are trialling systems that let citizens contact them by e-mail or the web.

Later this year, the government is expected to split 350 million between local authorities to help them fund these changes.

This week, Bracknell Forest Borough Council unveiled one of the more ambitious proposals that aims to give electronic identities to all of the 110,000 people living in Bracknell, Crowthorne, Sandhurst and Winkfield.

Initially, the digital ID will take the form of a number and password that can be used to access Bracknell Forest's online services and send messages to council officers. Bracknell hopes the system will prove a boon to families with children who would rather tackle the council at night via the web rather than visit council offices and queue until someone can see them.

Net literacy

Eventually, citizens will be able to report broken street lights, damaged street furniture such as benches or where graffiti has been sprayed.

"We're trying to narrow the gap between bureaucracy and individual interested citizens," said Gordon Mitchell, chief executive of the borough council.

Later this year, the council is planning to launch a smartcard that will carry the digital ID and allow holders to access and pay for a much wider range of council services and book authority controlled leisure services such as squash courts at local sports centres.

The card is expected to work in conjunction with government smartcards being issued to schoolchildren as part of a learning loyalty scheme.

Mr Mitchell said the area was a good one in which to trial these kinds of services because Bracknell was home to the regional and head offices of many high-tech companies. As a result, the local population is very net literate and over 50% of residents have net access at home.

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