Italy's new certified e-mail service has shaky start

The system has crashed or otherwise been too busy to handle all of those seeking to sign up

Italy's new certified e-mail system, which will enable citizens to enter into a secure official dialogue with local and central government, was encountering teething problems for a third straight day Wednesday.

Citizens wanting to register for the new service, which civil service ministry officials said they believe is the first of its kind in the world, were frequently greeted by a photograph of a smiling young woman and the message: "The maximum number of connections has been reached. Try again later."

Some users complained that the system crashed while they were halfway through the initial stage of registration, leaving them in a kind of administrative limbo, with their request entered into the system but no confirmation and none of the identification details that are required to take the process forward.

"No one expected that Italians would adopt the service in such massive numbers," a spokeswoman for the Italian Post Office said in a telephone interview. The Post Office and Telecom Italia won a €50 million (US $66 million) contract to provide the service, which is available free of charge to all Italian citizens.

The companies said they were receiving around 20,000 online registration requests every hour since the service was inaugurated on Monday. Citizens wishing to use the service are required to register online and then complete the registration process in person at designated post offices, where they must provide confirmation of their identity.

The certified electronic mail service, known by the acronym PEC, is intended to replace registered letters as a means of official communication with the state administration. The certified e-mails will enable citizens to communicate with state-run schools and hospitals, with the national tax authorities and with their local council. Doctors will be able to use it to provide medical certificates confirming a worker's right to sick leave.

Renato Brunetta, the civil service minister who has been pressing for the modernization of Italy's cumbersome state bureaucracy, says the new measure will promote efficiency and help to combat corruption. He believes the initiative will enjoy the enthusiastic backing of the country's 22 million Internet users.

"They are the most dynamic section of the population. When the PEC is widely distributed and they turn to the state administration for the most part online, they will provide a decisive incentive for the creation of a digital society," Brunetta said in an interview published by the weekly magazine Panorama on Friday. "What mayor would dare to go against such a movement of opinion?"

By the end of the year all central and local government institutions will be accessible via the PEC system, Brunetta vowed in a television interview Monday. "If I can't do it by moral suasion, I will introduce a rule in the next budget law making it obligatory for state bodies to communicate with one another exclusively via PEC," he said.

"It would be very embarrassing if citizens sign up for the service but the state administration is not connected," a civil service ministry spokeswoman said in a telephone interview. "We're putting pressure on local administrators to ensure they are accessible on the system."

Out of 117 provincial capitals, 98 have already published certified e-mail addresses where they can be contacted for official business, according to the association of local government administrators, ANCI.

"On paper this is a revolution that will speed up communications between institutions and citizens, but it won't be fully enacted unless there is a massive rollout of broadband connectivity first," warned Massimiliano Dona, the secretary general of the National Consumers' Union (UNC), in a prepared statement.

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