Our Future of Britain initiative sets out a policy agenda for a new era of invention and innovation, based on radical-yet-practical ideas and genuine reforms that embrace the tech revolution. The solutions developed by our experts will transform public services and deliver a greener, healthier, more prosperous UK.
Public services in the UK don’t require reform. They need transformation. In a world in which we can set up a bank account in minutes or pay for our shopping with the tap of a phone, the era of slow and cumbersome government services must come to an end. Our current bureaucracy manifests problems further down the line; months-long waits for passports and mounting delays to asylum-claims processing are just two examples of this.
Simple technology could revolutionise how we interact with public services and enable government to move at a pace fit for the 21st century. Whether we’re applying for a passport, booking a doctor’s appointment, generating a bespoke learning experience or assessing an asylum application, this technology would bring speed and efficiency while generating insights to spur constant improvement and innovation. It is the great enabler of modern government and has been within leaders’ reach for some time, but until now politics has stood in its way.
This great enabler is digital identity. Not just a new piece of identity, but a new system for managing the information we share with government that is suited to the way we live our lives today. It is a digital wallet for every individual that gives them access to their documents (for example, driving licence) and control of their data.
A Digital Identity for Britain
In the UK today, there are more than 190 different ways for people to set up accounts to interact with local and national government services, and 44 different sign-in methods. Many people don’t know which personal information about them is held by local and national governments, how it is being used or how secure it is. There is no way for individuals to control how information is shared between different parts of government.
By contrast, well-designed digital infrastructure would give people control of their data, make it easier and quicker to prove their eligibility for needed services and, in turn, allow those services to be personalised to individual needs. This digital infrastructure would need to be developed and delivered in close collaboration with the private sector and civil society.
It would include multiple components:
A single digital wallet
Multiple secure, verifiable digital credentials, such as a digital driving licence, that would be stored in and accessed via this wallet
The wallet could be used to gain access to personal data held in various parts of government. People could also use it to agree to privately and securely share data to produce collective aggregated data sets that could be used to draw insights about all sorts of government functions and services.
Digital infrastructure designed in this way would empower individuals to securely prove their identity, granularly manage the sharing – or not – of their own data and seamlessly access all their public services. This would be more secure and more convenient: no more putting your passport in the post to renew it or taking your driving licence on a night out to prove your age.
At the population level, we would generate insights that could transform public services and move them to a proactive, personalised model. Most of us share a broad range of information with private companies, who use it to become more efficient and to improve their products and services. Taking this approach would bring the same benefits to taxpayers and public-service users.
Digital identity would bring:
Speed and efficiency
Public services and government fit for the 21st century
How digital identity would benefit public services and government
Benefits of digital identity
How would it work?
Examples of use
Speed and efficiency in public services and government
A tap of a phone would replace the many steps involved in current government bureaucracy, which relies heavily on paper-based systems. People could choose to share certain information with different parts of government to make it easier and quicker to access the services they need.
When a baby is born, the family could choose to allow the hospital to share that information with the Department for Work and Pensions so they could access child benefit automatically.
An individual seeking asylum in the UK could apply at an embassy overseas and – if approved – use a secure temporary digital identity for travel. This removes the need to make a perilous cross-Channel boat crossing.
Employers, landlords and immigration authorities could check instantly and securely whether someone had the right to live or work in the UK.
Personalised public services and government
Digital identity would become the foundation of interactions with public services. Individuals could choose to make their data available to selected parts of government; services could then be personalised to them based on preferences expressed elsewhere, previous interactions or data on how they prefer to interact. With generative AI, this can be taken to a new level.
A student with our digital identity who shared data with a national education system could create a bespoke learning experience using artificial intelligence (AI).
A visitor to A&E could register their arrival with a tap of their phone, link to a recent call with 111 and avoid the need to reshare information.
Public services and government fit for the 21st century
Aggregated public-sector data, shared in a rights-preserving way within a secure data environment, could provide insights to improve public-services delivery, to understand national and local trends, and to inform best use of scarce public-sector resources. These insights would help make public services fairer and more efficient.
Health-record data could be used to generate insights that could inform preventative treatment for certain demographics.
Granular real-time data could be used to monitor how schools perform, replacing infrequent, high-stakes Ofsted inspections.
Enabling workers to prove their right to work easily and instantly, and processing asylum claims more quickly, would help bring an end to the UK’s low-paid, exploitative informal labour market.
Digital Identity Applied: Use Cases
A digital identity for every learner could transform the education system. Today, schools and tech apps (like Google Classroom) already collect large amounts of data, but parents and students can’t see this information and educators can’t always use it to support their work. At the same time, the government continues to rely on low-information, high-stakes inspection visits when holding schools to account.
Instead, we could connect education data, wherever they are held, to a digital identity and make them accessible to their real owners – parents and learners. A complete picture of each student’s lifelong learning journey could be built up, one that could be used to power transformative educational experiences such as bespoke AI learning assistants, offer smooth access to relevant services like support for special educational needs and disabilities, or provide eligible students with free school meals.
Teachers could use information on students’ progress to offer targeted support and easily tailor content and tasks to challenge them. For children moving from nursery to primary school, or from primary to secondary school, seamless sharing of learning records and teachers’ notes would make for a straightforward transition.
In a wider context and taken together, these data would be anonymised and give head teachers and inspectors a shared understanding of a school’s strengths and weaknesses compared to similar schools. This would allow them to decide on specific steps for improvement and track their impact.
The same data could be used to create genuine school choice, so parents could build league tables to suit their preferences and students could easily combine in-person schoolwork with online learning. And as they prepared for work or further study, students could decide which trustworthy, verifiable information to share with employers or universities and when.
A health account, containing an individual’s full medical history, would empower people to take control of their health and vastly improve the quality and use of health-care data. Through this central record, patients could review their health information, including medical records and test results, book appointments, order prescriptions and self-refer where appropriate.
People could supplement these data with information generated by wearables, genomic-risk profiles, routine at-home diagnostic tests and care provided outside the National Health Service (NHS). This could create a holistic picture of their health and enable earlier intervention and prevention of disease. Over time, the scope of this digital profile could be expanded to provide targeted guidance on new treatment options or clinical-trial opportunities to match patient needs, improving patient care and making the UK a more attractive location for life-sciences investment.
Finally, this digital health account would provide a trusted route for people to access approved digital tools that could help them directly address health-care issues. This includes accredited apps for mental health and musculoskeletal conditions, alongside tools that accurately assess issues like skin complaints – so improving patient access and reducing burdens on primary care.
Illegal Migration and Asylum
Trends in overall asylum applications in the UK have been rising steadily since 2010, with the highest number since 2003 reached in 2022. This has been driven by a surge in small-boat crossings, which account for more than three-quarters of total asylum applications. The asylum system currently costs the UK some £3 billion a year and rising, including nearly £6 million a day on hotel accommodation and approximately £219 million a year to detain people for identification purposes.
A digital-identity system could deter people from making dangerous small-boat crossings by enhancing identity-verification capabilities and promoting compliance with immigration regulations. By incorporating biometric data and digital authentication measures, authorities in both the public and private sectors could accurately establish individuals’ identities and make it harder for undocumented immigrants to disappear into the underground economy, renting and working illegally.
This system would further facilitate secure data sharing and interoperability among government agencies responsible for immigration control and enforcement. This would ensure that those with immigration violations could easily be identified by the system. Linking digital identity to various government systems could deter individuals from unlawfully extending their stay in the country.
Data insights generated by digital-identity systems would also make it possible for the government to understand migration patterns better, identify administrative hurdles in asylum processing and allocate resources more effectively within the immigration system.
A digital identity would simplify access to public services by enabling personalised, targeted assistance. Public-service providers can use digital identity and shared government data to provide relevant levels of support to individuals without passing on the administrative burden to the individuals. In Portugal, for example, a social energy tariff was set up to subsidise electricity costs for vulnerable households by integrating data flows across energy companies, tax authorities and the social-security system. This allowed the government to offer the tariff automatically to eligible households, increasing uptake from 150,000 when people had to apply for it to 725,000 when it was offered proactively.
Similarly in the UK, a digital identity would enable seamless integration between different government agencies and service providers. If, for example, a young family became a single-income household, an individual could confirm their eligibility for a different tariff by consenting to a data disclosure between HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and their energy provider.
Principles for Implementation
There are three core principles that must serve as a foundation for the implementation of digital identity in the UK.
1. Digital identity must be transparent and bring control to the individual
Public trust in the government’s handling and use of personal data in the UK varies between individuals. The public has sought reassurances that their data are being handled securely and that appropriate measures are in place to prevent unauthorised access, including accounting for data breaches and misuse.
Concerns regarding the government’s custodial capacity and use of public data have heightened over the last decade, with several initiatives including the government’s NHS data-sharing plan being called into question. Notable data breaches, including HMRC’s 2007 data loss, the 2019 Windrush compensation scheme data breach and the 2022 and 2023 NHS data breaches, impact the public’s perception of the government’s ability to maintain the security and privacy of sensitive information within its systems.
A digital-identity system that gives users visibility of and control over when and how their data are accessed and used, and that provides robust privacy safeguards, transparent data practices and clear accountability measures, could help address concerns surrounding government data usage. It would allow only necessary information to be shared, rather than disclosing actual data or allowing access to databases (for example, sharing whether someone is over 18 years rather than sharing their birth date). And it could make an individual’s information more secure, by allowing it to be accessed online rather than using a physical identity document.
A single personal profile would allow people to see which data are held and choose which information they share. In Estonia, this already happens: individuals can log in and see who has accessed their records, when and for what purpose.
2. Digital identity must be secure and have robust privacy protections
A new digital-identity ecosystem needs to be built on a decentralised model, without creating a new central database that could be vulnerable to leaks or hacking. It would also need to meet the highest standards of security so that people are confident that their information is kept private and that they are protected from identity theft. State-of-the-art encryption techniques, one-time tokens and biometrics could all help strengthen the security of individuals’ data.
3. Digital identity must bring speed and utility to people
The new ecosystem should make life easier for people and allow them to use their digital identity in many different contexts – not only to log in to government services but also to access commercial goods and services. This could enable them to prove they have a driving licence when renting a car or verify their age online. It should also be accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they own a smartphone.
Digital Identity: Public Support
The public understands the benefits and advantages that technology has brought to their lives. They are sophisticated consumers who know that part of the value that big tech firms like Amazon or Google generate stems from the data they collect. More than 60 per cent of UK respondents do not mind sharing these data in return for online services. People want their information to be appropriately protected, but they are comfortable with the idea that many organisations make use of these data to make their lives more convenient. Digital services help free up time to spend with family and friends or on other pursuits.
Through their experience with the NHS app during the pandemic, people have seen how easy using technology can be and know that its use in health can save time, improve back-office efficiency and provide insights to improve public health. They know that technology can help students learn, providing continuous and more accurate assessments than stressful tests deliver. And they know verifying online profiles can help keep children safe and reduce fraud.
Yet the debate about identity and data in the UK has been fraught. People are rightly concerned about protecting their privacy and the government has not always taken adequate care of the information it holds or been clear enough about how and when it is used.
Putting in place a transparent, secure ecosystem for individual digital identity and public data is not an easy job. Successive leaders have avoided this challenge under the guise of protecting privacy, and there is a culture of overcaution around using and sharing information in government. However, it is not a case of delivering either privacy or modern public services. Individual digital identities can transform the public sector while simultaneously giving people more clarity about and control over their information.
The majority of people in the UK understand this: they want their personal information to remain private and secure, but they also know that data is a powerful asset and they want to see it used to transform public services.
Public services and government can be transformed by changing our approach to data and creating a digital identity for every person. We should insist on the highest standards of transparency, privacy and control. At the same time, we should use technology to transform education, deliver personalised health care and manage immigration fairly and efficiently. We should expect civil servants to use all the information at their disposal to forecast needs, monitor performance, improve services and help leaders make better decisions.
The technology already exists to make all this possible. Until now, a lack of political courage has held us back. The time has come to invest in a proper digital-identity system so that the UK can modernise public services and give people the personalised health care and education they deserve. The public knows this; now politicians need to catch up.