Finding your identity: how three governments are developing digital ID

By on 23/03/2023 | Updated on 14/04/2023
Kevin Cunnington and Global Government Digital Summit chair Siobhan Benita

Digital ID is an essential building block for rapid progress on transforming public services – but only a handful of governments have launched effective, popular systems. At the Global Government Digital Summit, digital leaders from Germany, Catalonia and Azerbaijan explained how they’re addressing the problem

“Citizen digital identity is very polarising,” said Kevin Cunnington. “There are 193 countries in the world: 11 have digital identity at scale; 182 of us do not. If you have digital identity, you can transform; if you don’t, you can’t, because you can’t join up the data that you hold about people in different silos. So digital identity is probably the key technology topic within digital today.”

Cunnington, the former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service, was setting out one of the seven key findings of Global Government Forum’s February 2022 Digital Leaders report: that “to realise their vision of seamless services wrapping around the user, countries must develop two essential capabilities: strong digital ID systems, and high-quality, cross-government data management”. Speaking to digital leaders from 12 countries at the Global Government Digital Summit in Ottawa, he explained that these capabilities are distinct, but closely linked: a digital ID system both permits users easy access to a wide range of public services, and allows providers to connect those services around the user.

A new Digital Leaders report, published in March, presents three ways to address each of the seven challenges identified in that first report: on digital ID and data management, it profiles Singapore’s approach to creating ‘golden records’ for key datasets; argues for governments to build public trust by putting citizens in charge of their data; and urges digital leaders rolling out digital ID programmes to “focus on building a customer base, not delivering a policy”.

This last point speaks to the experiences of countries such as Germany – where less than 10% of the public make use of a digital ID system introduced a decade ago. Magdalena Zadara, head of product at Germany’s federal digital service unit DigitalService des Bundes (DSB), explained that every citizen and resident holds an e-ID card capable of securely holding and sharing personal data, and able to verify the user’s identity to online services. “It’s a great technological foundation, but it’s not being used,” she said. So public service providers such as the tax authority and regional administrations have set up their own digital ID systems, leaving the e-ID card without enough applications to provide value to users – and perpetuating its Cinderella status.

Magdalena Zadara

Researching the problem, DSB found the e-ID card popular with tech enthusiasts, but identified “a lot of hurdles in the user journey”. Different elements of the journey are “built or owned by different government entities, and they really focus on their own part, and what it looks like end-to-end gets really neglected,” she explained. This complex sign-up process has led to high drop-out rates among those seeking to activate their digital ID systems. A decade ago, the hope was that private companies would build services for e-ID users; but low uptake has kept the potential market small, constraining private investment.

Nonetheless, Zadara continued, the system has important advantages – including high security and public trust. To improve its convenience and accessibility, DSB is working alongside the e-ID system’s owners in the GovLab inter-ministerial working group: “We believe that user-friendliness can be achieved with the existing e-ID system,” she said. “We’re building a new front-stage system, and having an app which will be easier to use.”

They are also streamlining the “organisational and technical integration on the back-stage, so that service providers can easily integrate it” into their own IT systems. When both service users and providers find the system easy to set up and use, adoption rates should increase – providing a bigger market that attracts more public and private sector providers. Their services will, in turn, improve the incentives for people to sign up – enabling Germany’s e-ID system to escape the chicken-and-egg problem that has dampened uptake to date.

Over in Catalonia, the regional administration is taking a different approach to digital ID – developing a blockchain-based system for use by any public body across the European Union. Astrid Desset, director general of the Open Administration Consortium of Catalonia (OACC), explained that the agency she represented – which has issued more than 2.5m digital identities to the region’s 7m-strong population – recently undertook a “self-sovereign identity” pilot, working alongside a local authority and universities in Belgium and Catalonia.

Astrid Desset

The OACC team worked with the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure (EBSI): “A sandbox for testing that the European Community has offered to all member states to test new digital identities and ways of sharing data.” The pilot generated an immutable, secure record of the user’s ID and other data – such as their accreditations at the two universities – and stored it in a wallet on their mobile phone, secure behind a biometric access system. No central record of the data was created, and the user retained full control of their data: “In this case, the student can show that he has a diploma from a university, but choose not to show where he lives,” Desset said.

Catalonia’s blockchain system can be accessed by any public body in the EU – reflecting the lives of EU citizens, who increasingly need to connect with organisations across the Union. And OACC also offers digital ID for non-EU citizens, recently providing mobile digital IDs to Ukrainian refugees. “Through a video identification algorithm, we checked the match with their identity document, and it functioned very well,” she explained – permitting refugees to rapidly access public services online.

Azerbaijan has also used AI-powered video registration systems, explained Soltan Bayramov, deputy director of the country’s e-Gov Development Centre. Providing additional security for users of Azerbaijan’s ‘Asan Login’ digital ID, the e-Gov single sign-on registration process checks live video of the citizen against the biometric image on their identification card. “If the match is above 80%, it’s approved; if it’s below 80%, it asks a human operator to accept or reject it,” he explained. The AI can spot identical twins, he added – directing them to the closest “public service mall” for registration. To address the threat that AI-created “deep fakes” might be used to trick the system, it also asks users to answer random questions during the registration process.

Asan Login users – who now comprise nearly 60% of the country’s age 18-45 population – can access key digital services such as personal tax and customs declarations. And Asan Login has applications well beyond the public sector: it is used by banks and insurance companies, which can request the user’s permission to access data as they provide services. The user, Bayramov added, always retains control of how their data is used; and if people spot an error in any of the personal data held on them, they can easily report the problem.

Soltan Bayramov

How to cater for older and less digitally-savvy citizens was raised by Kirsten Tisdale, managing partner at EY Canada. There’s a risk of creating “a have/have not issue amongst society, where half are plugged in and the other half aren’t,” she said. “How do you manage that from a policy perspective?” Andri Heidar Kristinsson, chief executive officer of Digital Iceland, noted that this challenge remains even in highly digitally engaged societies: over 95% of Iceland’s working population regularly use their digital IDs, he said, “but there’s a very strong public conversation going on about not leaving any groups behind, and finding the right support for the disabled and elderly”.

This isn’t a homogenous group, commented Germany’s Zadara: many disabled people are highly digitally literate, and “for those who have mobility impairments, not having to go into the government office is a blessing”. What’s more, she added, the efficiencies created by digital delivery free up staff time to help those still using traditional channels. But “we don’t believe that you can get to a point where you’re 100% digital in the next two years – or even ten years,” she said. In an ongoing DSB project to build a tax product for pensioners, she added, many users are “super excited, and thankful for the service” – but others will not be persuaded to abandon the analogue habits of a lifetime.

In Azerbaijan, explained Bayramov, people with limited digital skills can access a wide range of services in the country’s 24 Asan-badged “public service malls”, or via the mobile offices that tour the country by bus and train. And for the disabled, there is a network of dedicated centres, plus a mobile service with “operators who visit their homes, and get issues sorted there” – gathering biometric information to register users for online services, for example. “These are just some of the solutions that we implement. They cover a big majority of the target audience,” he said.

So Azerbaijan has an accessible and secure digital ID system, linked to the robust spine of national ID records, and offering a range of applications in both the public and private sectors: on the goal of developing “strong digital ID systems”, the country scores a big tick. However, to realise the second goal – that of “high-quality, cross-government data management” – Azerbaijan has one more reform to undertake.

The country’s first generation of digital services, Bayramov explained, were established on an e-government portal in 2012. In 2014, it created a Registry of Public Services. And in 2019, the e-Gov Development Centre launched its Mygov service delivery platform. So services have been hosted in separate places, each holding their own datasets – with, inevitably, some duplicated and conflicting data.

Having demonstrated the value of Mygov, digital ID and its Asan projects, Bayramov’s agency recently secured a major vote of confidence: the government is legislating to establish Mygov as a default ‘golden record’, providing a single source of data accepted across government. “After two years of hard work, and after gaining 2.5 million users, we are on the eve of making the necessary changes to the legislation,” he said. “From now on, whatever data is available on the Mygov platform will be accepted by all the government agencies.” During 2023, the aim is to bring together all three platforms in a single “super-portal”.

It has been a decade-long journey for Azerbaijan. But the country’s experience shows that – given a focus on user-friendliness, accessibility and citizen benefits – digital ID and good data management can win both the engagement of citizens, and the trust of elected leaders. “We created the tools, demonstrated that they worked, and asked the government to make the necessary changes,” Bayramov concluded. “By bringing to the table such successful tools, we influenced the mindset of all the stakeholders.”

The 2022 Global Government Digital Summit was hosted by the Government of Canada in Ottawa in October. This article covers the event’s second session. The first article covers the evening session, including the responses to one digital leader’s plea for assistance; the third explores how to develop strategies and drive transformation; the fourth covers discussions about the digital workforce; and the fifth explores the issues around transitioning from legacy systems.

Although the Summit is a private event, GGF produces these reports to share as much of the discussions as possible with our readers – checking before publication that participants are happy to be quoted. Visit to learn more about the Summit. 

Our new Digital Leaders report sets out three ways to address each of the seven challenges identified in our first report, published in February 2022. Visit our Digital Leaders homepage for more on our research programme.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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