Digital Identities and E-Government in a Post-Pandemic World: What we have learnt
The efficiency case for the roll out of digital identities has been well established, with evidence emerging from countries across geographies over recent years i ii iii. However, the need for digital identities today extends beyond, becoming a near-necessity to keep public services functioning uninterrupted with prolonged periods of social distancing forced by COVID. Digital identities can enable E-Government services which are accessible remotely and 24×7. This was on display in the United Kingdom’s with the GOV.UK Verify digital identity platform. The first month of lockdown in March 2020 triggered a 10% rise in the number new digital identities being created to remotely file Universal Credit claims at the start of the lockdown in March 2020  . This helped deliver crucial financial support to ensure that thousands of citizens could access vital services in the midst of the crisis.
The GOV.UK Verify program has not been without its issues. Adoption rates have fallen well short of the 25 million users by 2020 target. Having taken a private sector led approach, the low adoption and usage rates have forced 3 out of 5 identity providers (IdPs) to stop supporting the solution due to concerns regarding its profitability  . Rolling out a successful digital identity program is a commitment for the long haul and it may seem that the short-term financial pressures faced by private actors may make them unsuited to perform the role of IdPs in cases where uptake falls short of expectations. While the private sector IdP model has seen huge success in the Nordic region, with near universal digital identity coverage, this approach has been met with mixed results in other geographies . Industry projections now suggest that the pandemic might just have tipped the balance in favour of a government issued digital identity model iv.
Irrespective of the model adopted by a country, one thing is for certain; digital identities are expected to see significant growth in the coming years, laying the foundation for the next wave of E-Government innovation. But the proliferation of digital identities is not an end in itself, empowering citizens is. It is thus highly pertinent to deliberate extensively on what constitutes good digital identity. As a digital identity solutions provider, we look to global projects and emerging technology trends to inform our own product decisions. Along the way, we have adopted the following design principles to place the interests of our users (the citizens) at the forefront.
Privacy by Design
Given the sensitive nature of digital identity and the extent of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) involved, public trust in a solution is paramount. At the core of this is ensuring that the solution is designed with citizen privacy as a priority. Procivis has been guided by the values of the Self-Sovereign Identity and Blockchain movements that leverage cryptographic techniques to ensure user control and sovereignty over their PII v. In line with this, every new feature must tick the following boxes; consent & choice, purpose legitimacy & specification, collection limitation and data minimization.
Offering high-value use cases
While government issued digital identities have been around for nearly two decades, one of the primary factors setting apart successful programs from others, is access to services that citizens value. Beyond offering the primary functionality of authenticating yourself in the digital realm, cases from around the world have shown that adoption is strongly correlated with the availability of services with high-transaction frequencies. One such service is the provision of legally binding digital signatures. In Estonia, digital signatures have all but replaced wet signatures, with over 200 million digital signatures being submitted every year by a population of 1.3 million people . Other use cases that have encouraged adoption include services that permit citizens to receive and manage official documents, certificates and licenses digitally. Brazil and Argentina have seen significant adoption of digital identity wallets since permitting citizens to store their driver’s licenses and vehicle documents on their smartphones. These are amongst the cases which have informed the development of our first three core features – eAuthentication, eSignatures and eDocuments.
It is not just enough to provide access to vital services; it is also important that the user-experience for a citizen is intuitive and seamless. For instance, a number of countries introduced smart cards, which permit citizens to authenticate and sign documents electronically. However, several of these processes relied on also possessing a card reader, which proved prohibitively complex and impeded adoption. Smartphone based digital identities address this issue by relying on commodity hardware and familiar user journeys. Furthermore, a number of government digital services suffer from being digitized in fragments. For example, in Switzerland a number of official documents can be ordered on a government portal, but the payment processes are separate, requiring that citizens make a wire transfer after receiving an invoice. In the Canton of Schaffhausen, we combine ePayments with eAuthentication and eDocuments on a mobile app, permitting citizens to go through the process of ordering, paying for via credit card and receiving their official documents all in one seamless flow.
Interoperability to build an ecosystem of services
As highlighted above, the true value of a digital identity lies in the access to services that it can enable. It is thus vital that solutions rely on open standards that make it easy for third parties (public and private sector) to integrate digital identities into their processes. The financial sector is one industry that finds immense value in leveraging a trusted digital identity. In Denmark for instance, out of the 70 million monthly transactions, 40 million were used for banking transactions. However, a government-issued identity forms the trusted foundation of a digital society and can find applications in quarters far broader than initially envisioned.
i Digital identities in Estonia enables 24×7 access to 99% of all public services online. This helps the country save an estimated 844 years of working time every year. Furthermore E-Signatures enables by the digital identity is estimated to save the country 2% of GDP every year.
ii In India, the Aadhaar electronic identity facilitated the opening of over 400 million new bank accounts. The government now transfers subsidies directly into the bank accounts of beneficiaries, eliminating significant inefficiencies in the country’s subsidy delivery mechanism. The Government of India reports a cumulative saving of USD 23 billion dollars between 2013 and 2019.
iii McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the deployment of a digital identity can add on average 6% to the GDP of an emerging nation and 3% in the case of developed nations.
iv Juniper research has projected that the adoption of government issued digital identities will see a remarkable surge of over 400% from about 1 billion digital identities today leading up to 2025, driven by the lasting impacts of the pandemic.
v Procivis’ digital identity solutions deployed in the Swiss Canton of Schaffhausen does not use blockchain technology. Decentralized identifier (DID) standards are still in development and have thus been determined to lack the maturity for deployment in a production environment. The solution however is guided by the principles of decentralization which keeps citizens in control of their personal data.
 See Table 1 – Comparison of eID programs: state as a regulator vs the state as an IdP