A smart move for streamlined service delivery?

By on 13/04/2014 | Updated on 04/02/2022

Graham Scott analyses the potential of smart ID cards to drive efficiency in public services

Imagine that every bit of information a government needs about its citizens could be stored on a single card. That would mean one bit of plastic, embedded with a high-capacity electronic chip, could replace a person’s driving licence, proof of residence, proof of age, biometric ID and much more.

Such a card would certainly make life easier for a country’s population, reducing the amount of paperwork they need in order to prove that they really are who they say they are. And it would make the workings of the public sector far more streamlined, reducing bureaucracy by storing information in a single repository.

There are, of course, social and psychological reasons why the inhabitants of some nations oppose such a card. In the UK, for example, there has been a strong campaign to resist the imposition of national identity cards, on the grounds that they impose on a person’s right to privacy. But in other countries, the advantages of such technology are widely recognised.

Making life simpler

To give an example of the way in which such a Smart ID card could help improve life for citizens, consider the situation in South Africa.

To buy a phone and SIM card in this country, citizens have to take along a small folder of information, including items like proof of ID, proof of address, and stamped bank statements. But if they have a smart ID card, they simply take that to the phone shop and are ready to set up a contract.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, South Africa is one nation that is in the first throes of introducing Smart ID Cards. Another is Pakistan, and the experience of both countries so far shows the benefits and pitfalls of such a programme.

Pakistan started rolling out its Smart National Identity Card (SNIC) in 2012. The programmes is being overseen by NADRA (The National Database and Registration Authority), which claims to hold the largest biometric database of citizens in the world. The security of such a stock of citizen data is clearly an issue, but NADRA claims its SNIC is equipped with 36 security features, using a layering system to safeguard sensitive information.

So far, Pakistanis have been using a Computerised National Identity Card. But in an ambitious move, the country plans to replace all 89 million of these with physical SNICs by 2020.

In South Africa, which hasn’t had one centralised ID card before, the plan is to collate all the information the government requires about an individual and put it on a secure card. This was meant to roll out in 2013 but actually started in February 2014, with President Jacob Zuma among the first to receive his smart ID card.

At the time of writing, first-time users (like 17-year-olds) and pensioners are being prioritised, but industry insiders say the government’s hope to complete the rollout in eight years looks optimistic.

In all nations where smart ID cards are being introduced, there is a need to tie up with private-sector organisations to provide the necessary technology. In the case of South Africa and Pakistan, French security specialist Gemalto has provided the encrypted cards, and says it has capacity to provide around three million per year to the South African government.

Potential challenges

While there are clear advantages associated with smart ID cards, for citizen and state alike, the experience of nations making the switch does suggest at least two areas of potential concern.

First, simply collating the data on the cards and then distributing them is a lengthy process, as the South African experience bears out. This can lead to expensive delays, and a period during which traditional bureaucratic methods sit alongside more technologically advanced ones, leading to a more complicated, rather than simpler, public administration.

Second, there is the issue of security, both with the cards themselves and with the citizen data necessary to make them function effectively. As Steven Ambrose, of South African analyst firm Strategy Worx observes: “The danger of privacy and security lies in the systems put in place to secure the national database, and access to this database, from the various users of the system, and not the actual card.”

If electronic ID cards are to become more widespread, therefore, there is a requirement for some smart thinking by the world’s governments.

About Kevin Sorkin

I am the Founder and CEO of Pendragon International Media Ltd, publishers of Global Government Forum. This portfolio also includes research services and important world leading events for public servants such as the Global Government Summit, the Global Government Finance Summit, the Global Government Forum Innovation conference, Global Government Digital Summit and Putting Citizens First. I am also the founder of the Civil Service Awards and Civil Service Live, established industry leading brands and extremely important events for government. I also launched and published Civil Service World. Over the years I have established relationships with the most senior officials in government and the private sector and have built a very strong and positive reputation across the industry.

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