Bob McClean, Business Development Director, Civica Digital and Trevor Steenson, Digital Transformation Programme Director, Northern Ireland Civil Service discuss the growing demand for public digital services and the challenges faced in overcoming the complexities of managing citizens’ online identity as these services grow and evolve.
Ironically The Who asked “Who are you? Who? Who?” but it’s actually an increasingly more complex question than it first appears and is much more significant than just playing over the opening credits of CSI: Miami.
In the digital age, being able to confidently and securely identify yourself online goes to the heart of creating a meaningful relationship between the citizen and public digital services. If we get that right, then we have an opportunity at being the most efficient and effective region in the UK. Get it wrong and online digital services could become the expensive white elephant in the room; with take up driven down by a lack of trust or ease of use.
So, what’s the big deal about our public services knowing who you are online? This issue is often painted with Orwellian undertones of big brother is watching you, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – fake news some might say. In reality each citizen needs to be able to identify and authenticate themselves online to prevent fraud and to ensure they get access to the right public services.
In some ways the private sector has it easier, as typically they only need to understand who you are for a single purpose – your bank only knows you in the context of providing you with financial services, your favourite online retailer really only needs to know where to send the goods that have been paid for. Public services cover a much broader area with a greater degree of complexity around what you are entitled to.
The need to evolve and grow
Is there a need for public sector services to evolve and grow along with our citizens? Trevor Steenson, Digital Transformation Programme Director from the Northern Ireland Civil Service summarises it succinctly: “Government transactions with citizens and businesses are often quite long lasting, sometimes include the exchange of documents which need to be securely stored and always involve some element of eligibility checking. Added to that, they are sometimes repeated very infrequently, for example renewing a driving licence every 10 years, and so yes, there is a much greater need to have an online authenticated persona that grows and evolves with you.”
Bob McClean, Business Development Director for Civica Digital, adds: “We’re also aware that public sector services are often accessed by businesses, be that firms of solicitors or property agents, as well as individuals acting as power of attorney, so there is the added dimension of users acting on behalf of others, as well as potentially being users as an individual themselves.”
Steenson concludes: “We need a central solution that will allow citizens and businesses to subscribe to and avail of public digital services in a secure, simple manner. We need to hide some of the complexity and distributed nature of government, while delivering a richer experience that means they keep coming back to the current and future offerings on NI Direct time and again.”
Is this really possible? Well, a nation about the same size as Northern Ireland – Estonia – is taking an interesting approach. Estonia’s central Population Database securely stores a unique identifier for each citizen, including their name, date of birth, gender, address history, citizenship, and legal relationships. As a rule, government systems in Estonia are not allowed to store the information that already exists on another system, so personal data does not get duplicated. Citizens can access their own data online through the State Portal and can correct mistakes and interact with digital services, bringing greater take up of multiple digital services resulting in even greater efficiencies, as well as considerable costs and time saving.
“We need a central solution that will allow citizens and businesses to subscribe to and avail of public digital services in a secure, simple manner. We need to hide some of the complexity and distributed nature of government, while delivering a richer experience that means they keep coming back to the current and future offerings on NI Direct time and again.”
Ensuring security as we grow
In addition, the impending GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) legislation and the principle of the citizen’s right to be forgotten, will require accurate data and a clear understanding of what information is being held. It’s hard to be forgotten when they’re not sure who you are. Having a simplified, central view can support efforts to ensure compliance, avoiding the heavy fines of 4 per cent of global turnover or €20 million that come with those breaches.
Ironically, another common misconception is that online identity is less secure. But in reality, the systems put in place, particularly by governments, mean that electronic personal information is more secure, but the occasional breaches are deemed more newsworthy. Think of it this way, until they are caught, how do you know there is not someone out there with a fake version of your driving licence opening a line of credit in your name? In the digital world, this type of fraudulent activity is much easier to spot.
What next for Northern Ireland?
Looking at the UK, GOV.UK experiences over 75 million transactions, registrations and applications per year. Despite being a much smaller region, in Northern Ireland, we now have over 28 million online visitors who have completed over 10.5 million transactions on the NI Direct platform. As take up of digital services continues to grow and the number of online services increases, there will be a need to reduce the growing complexity of authenticating the citizen for each individual service. A headache that will soon start to be felt by both government and the citizen themselves.
It seems that whilst Northern Ireland is currently leading the way in launching online services with many new and highly used digital services available under the NI Direct umbrella, the next step is to tie these services together with a single customer account to support higher levels of digital use and even more efficiency for public services across Northern Ireland.
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