You know the drill. You apply for a library card, driver’s license, passport, or bank account, and you have to start at the top and fill in a long laborious form telling them your first name, last name, date of birth, address, and provide various pieces of evidence proving that you are who you say you are. For each document you have to complete a different form to meet the peculiar requirements of a different agency or company. At the other end, an army of bureaucrats laboriously works through all the applications and sorts out the inevitable problems that occur.
Users of online services used to face the same problem of having to complete a proprietary registration form for every website that required a login. Create an account, remember your username, and choose a hard-to-remember password. Users had to potentially remember a different password for every service. Social networks like Facebook have helped simplify this process; now many websites or mobile apps allow first-time visitors to simply register using their social media account into which they are already logged. What used to be a daunting form-filling process has been replaced with a single “Sign up with Facebook” click. Signing up for one social network can make it easy to sign up for hundreds of other apps.
Wouldn’t it be good if it were just as easy to access government services? Citizens and the government would benefit from a streamlined process whereby signing up for one government service means you can sign up for them all without having to laboriously duplicate the same data entry every time.
The Baltic nation of Estonia led the way with just such a service in 2014 with the introduction of their national ID cards which provide a government-verified digital identity to every citizen. From the moment of birth, every Estonian has a digital birth certificate issued by the hospital and their health insurance is automatically started. At the age of 15 all citizens get their physical ID card which streamlines access to banking, public transportation, voting, healthcare, signing contracts, and myriad other uses. Filing taxes takes under an hour and registering a new business is a one-minute job.
Estonia has an advantage in that its population is a mere 1.3 million, roughly the same as the greater Dublin area, and small countries can implement this kind of reform at lightening speed. Not to be left behind, Ireland has also tried to roll out a Public Services Card (PSC) that seeks to smooth out the interactions between citizens and government. Originating as a means of preventing benefit fraud, the use of the PSC has been steadily expanded to other government services and has become a requirement for first-time adult passport applicants, replacement of some lost or stolen or damaged passports, citizenship applications, driving test applications, and access to online public services such as Social Welfare and Revenue services. More uses are set to follow.
Despite the expected benefits, the well-intentioned PSC has been dealt a series of confidence-sapping blows, the latest of which was one applicant feeling humiliated when her status as an adopted child delayed the processing of her application; she had not noticed the stipulation that adopted people must produce a certificate of adoption. “It is the worst form of humiliation – Woman denied Public Services Card due to adopted status,” screamed the headline at thejournal.ie.
Concerns have been raised by civil liberty advocates that the PSC must not become a mandatory ID to be produced on demand to police. For police to accost anyone and demand their “papers please” would indeed be sinister, but the Garda Síochána are expressly prohibited from demanding the card as a form of identification. Legal experts argue that the governmnent is required by EU law to provide a solid justification for requiring the PSC as access to essential services. The flames of public disquiet are fanned by continuous media coverage of these “controversial” ID cards.
Rolling out the the PSC in Ireland may be more challenging than in Estonia, particularly if the public has a low opinion of government competence or the integrity of civic intentions, but it shouldn’t be that much more challenging if the right leadership is shown.
The British government made a botched attempt to implement a national ID system, spending $370m on it, before abandoning ship under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that took office in 2010. It would be a shame if Ireland were to follow a similar course when its smaller size makes it a perfect place to make a success of such a project.
Estonia’s implementation has not been without problems, and security vulnerabilities have required patches and updates to large numbers of IDs. Nonetheless, the system has been so popular and successful that it has been expanded to non-citizens, meaning it is set to bring in €1.5bn ($1.84bn) in net economic benefits and €340m ($416m) in socio-economic benefits by 2025 according to Deloitte, an accounting firm.
The worst thing the Irish government could do is quietly press on with implementation in the hope that protests don’t get too loud, a tactic that is sure to backfire. A better approach would be to boldly and openly talk up the many advantages of the system, preferably using Estonia as a shining example. In other words, the government should show leadership on this issue and sell it to the public to ensure that they buy into a service from which they can reap huge rewards.