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Residents of South Kent can now pay their council tax online, as Shepway District Council switched on its connection to the Government Gateway. The local authority, which this week announced the UK's biggest council tax increase this year, is the first in the UK to make its services available through the Gateway.

Rather than build its own connection, Shepway has opted for the Departmental Interface Server (DIS), an off-the-peg package developed by Sun Microsystems and Software AG. DIS was developed over the last two years, in collaboration with the office of the e-envoy and was given governmental approval in October last year. Shepway had it installed and running for tests a few days later.

Charles Andrews, Sun's public sector sales director, said the DIS package is an alternative to the large outsourcing deals that have characterised government IT contracts. It is also a simpler option than going it alone, he said.

"Looking at local authorities' attempts to connect to the Gateway, there have been several well documented challenges. Connecting to the Gateway as a local authority is hard enough, and it is even more difficult to sustain that connection over the long term," he said.

Tim Holyoake, Software AG's e-government consultant, said the" Microsoft bag of bits" approach had been tried by the public sector, but it was too complex, and the management costs too unpredictable. "No one in government is happy with only having one option," he said.

"The DIS does away with the need for the local authority to pull its own solution together from a variety of sources. In addition, having one point of contact for support means that the maintenance costs are known, and can be budgeted for."

The e-payments system is the first of a range of services the council plans to make available to residents over the next 18 months.

The Welland region's consortium of five local councils in the East Midlands will soon be connected to the Gateway, too. They will use DIS to provide user authentication so residents can check the their account status without having to call their council.

It remains to be seen of all the bugs really have been ironed out, and if the management of the system is as smooth as claimed. Sun and Software AG must be causing a few wrinkled foreheads at Microsoft, despite claiming not to care about their competition.

More than 100 other government organisations have signed up to attend the formal launch of DIS next week, and the two companies hint that central government contracts are on the horizon. ®

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