Digital IDs are the foundation for digital transformation
The growth of digital IDs improves quality of life by giving citizens access to essential public services, and are advancing the digital economy
1 Feb 2023

As governments around the world go digital, they are becoming ever-more aware that unconnected citizens can get left behind. Without a simple way to verify their identity, citizens struggle to access important services that can make a huge difference to their lives. The result is continued social exclusion for those at the bottom of the social pyramid, as well as a higher potential for fraud or waste of funds. When talking about digital transformation, there are four essential pillars: connectivity, digital ID, interoperability and data registries. Once the infrastructure and mobile connectivity are in place, I believe the most important of these – the one that really brings e-government to all citizens – is digital ID. It’s the foundation that enables a wider societal transformation.

India has been a pioneer in digital ID and in the past decade or so, has rolled out the world’s largest biometric ID program (known as Aadhaar), giving each citizen a unique 12-digit number. That’s quite a feat for a vast population of more than 1.3 billion. Encouraged by this success, the World Bank is working with 35 countries to support similar initiatives, through its ID4D project. Significant efforts are focused on Africa, where an estimated 500 million people are “invisible” in that they have no official identity. Digital ID programs are ongoing in Guinea, Togo, the Congo, Rwanda, Morocco, Ethiopia and other countries in the region.

The key to a larger digital locker

Although a digital ID is a huge step forward, it’s actually just the beginning. With an authenticated identity, citizens can register property or the birth of a child, apply for a passport, access healthcare, claim benefits, and apply for college. But an ID brings far more. In countries where a significant proportion of the population is unbanked, an ID eases the process of opening an account, which can make a huge difference to citizens’ lives. Whereas in the past people may have had to endure a long, painful and often unsuccessful process, now they just walk into a branch and show their ID. According to the latest figures from the World Bank, the number of Indian adults with a bank account more than doubled between 2011 and 2017, from 35% to 80%. It’s estimated that without digital ID, this figure would not have been reached for another 46 years.

Not satisfied with this, India introduced a new “digital locker”: an online repository of citizens’ documents such as education certificates, passport, driving licence, home ownership, which can all be uploaded electronically. A digital locker is a frictionless way to safely and securely carry documents you need for everyday life and makes interacting with government – and commerce – much simpler and more convenient. Let’s say you get stopped by a police officer for speeding: you can show your driving licence with a single swipe on your phone. And, to further facilitate the delivery of mobile-based services, the government has developed UMANG – Unified Mobile Application for New-age Governance – an easy-to-use app for smartphones and other personal devices, which is linked to the digital ID for universal identification. The app gives access to all services from local, state or federal governments, and – with citizens’ consent – enables information to be shared between government ministries and departments, to make it easier to coordinate services and gain holistic picture of citizens and their needs.

Data registries augment digitally connected government

By introducing data sharing and interoperability between different parts of government, there is an opportunity to create social registries of low-income or vulnerable groups who may be eligible for interventions and financial support, and could benefit from joined-up action from different public service providers. It might be an expectant mother who needs healthcare advice and help with nutrition, who wouldn’t otherwise have known she was eligible. And, in the spirit of connected government, the same woman might get proactively contacted by the child welfare department, reminding her she can claim benefits to help pay for childcare. Digital ID lets these different arms of government identify citizen records across systems, which can authenticate individuals automatically without human involvement.

As you would expect, data protection, privacy and security are high on the agenda, with a need for clearly defined rules on how personal data is used and shared, to ensure the owners’ consent. These should be in line with international data protection and privacy standards, and require appropriate governance. Digital IDs have exciting potential to transform the way citizens and governments engage with each other, and efficiently direct services to those who need them most. And by opening access to banking, digital IDs can also be a catalyst for much-needed economic growth in developing countries. 

* Rahul Rishi is the EY Government and Public Sector Consulting Leader in India.
Read more articles about GLOBAL AFFAIRS