From 1 January 2003 the paper version of the Belgian State Gazette ceased to exist. It is now accessible only in its electronic version (law of 24 December 2002, published in – still a paper version of – the Belgian State Gazette of 31 December 2002).
The decision to stop the paper edition received a lot of criticism, especially on the basis of the non-discrimination and equal treatment rules. The Belgian government has however clearly decided to take the step toward e-government. It has decided that the Belgian citizens have sufficient presence on the information highway, to allow it to provide a public service in electronic form only.
The normal rules of public regulatory law apply, which explains why this step was taken rather late.
1. The rule of equal treatment
The principles of equality and the non-discrimination rule are provided by articles 10 and 11 of the Belgian Constitution. According to this principle every citizen, in the same situation, must be treated equally. The equality principle does not exclude differentiated treatment, provided that the differentiated treatment is based on objective criteria and is for legitimate purposes.
Since not everyone owns the necessary equipment, or has the necessary access to the information highway, some are asking whether it is possible to deliver public services solely in electronic form without infringement of this rule.
2. The principle of continuity
The principle of continuity obliges the various administrations to provide public services on a continuous basis.
In an electronic environment, this means that the administration has to organize a sufficiently powerful back-office and disaster recovery system, and sufficient security measures to prevent disruptions in the electronic service delivery. This is still considered difficult.
3. The principle of changeability
The principle of changeability offers the administration the possibility to change, unilaterally, the organization of the delivery of the public services according to the needs of the public interest. It is said that the public interest at the moment requires electronic provision of services, although the extent of the obligation on the authorities to respond to this is also questioned.
4. The obligation of careful administration
Every administration has an obligation to provide careful administration, to act as a reasonable administration. To that extent, the public service will have to meet a certain qualitative level. In this respect, the notion of “universal service” may come into play.
The trend for e-government and the electronic provision of public services now is clearly set in Belgium. After the introduction of an electronic social security card, the government is also working on a project for the e-identity card.
The best known and very successful example of electronic administration is the Social Security Database (Banque Carrefour de la Sécurité Sociale – Kruispuntbank Sociale Zekerheid), which electronically manages the social security back-office for other social security entities, companies and citizens.
The Belgian government is working its way to e-government in two steps. The first step, which is the provision of information services, is to a large extent achieved: several government websites exist.
The second step however is the adaptation of the administration to an electronic environment, which is sufficiently complete to provide adequate communication and transaction services.
The principles of Belgian regulatory law are generally considered to be flexible enough to be applied to e-government, however they are not always considered as totally sufficient. The key issue is how to provide the electronic information and electronic services from the government with the same legal status and validity as governmental paper services.
The use of the electronic signature for governmental acts still is not completely implemented. Such implementation seems however essential as a start for efficient e-government in Belgium.