On 7 July 2021, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change convened a roundtable on Digital ID in collaboration with the Amazon Web Services Institute (AWSI). This was intended to build on TBI’s recent paper, which sets out five recommendations for policymakers building digital ID systems, as well as to inform AWSI’s future work in this area.
The discussion brought together senior policymakers from eight countries at different stages of their digital ID journey to share lessons and identify common challenges. The discussion was held under the Chatham House rule but we have identified nine key lessons from participants, which – with their permission – we share to inform other policymakers.
1. Invest in building user trust
Participants noted a changing environment, with people increasingly aware of data risks and more hesitant to share personal data. Countries who were early adopters of digital ID faced fewer challenges in rolling out systems than countries who are doing so now, who face greater public challenge and more perception issues. Countries who rolled out ID systems without sufficient investment in building user trust faced legal challenges, low adoption rates and were even forced to abandon rollout altogether.
Participants recommended clear, consistent and transparent communication with users about the function and scope of digital ID, risks and safeguards, ensuring broad user and civil society participation in policy development and the development of legal frameworks. One participant noted that digital literacy is an important prerequisite for understanding how data will be used and how to safeguard it, noting investments in “digital ambassadors” who aim to upskill users and answer questions. Users should clearly understand who owns their data, how their data will be used, the measures in place to protect it and the risks to them and their data. Allowing existing forms of ID to be used in parallel, as well as retaining the option for face-to-face transactions with government services was identified as a way of building public confidence over time.
2. Get the legal framework right
Establishing a clear and comprehensive legal framework which sets out who owns personal data, how it is used and users’ rights to access and redress was highlighted by most participants as a critical precondition for effective rollout. As above, governments should ensure strong public and civil society engagement in the development of legal frameworks, and clearly communicate what they mean and what they enable, making clear the rights and responsibilities of different providers and users. Capturing the minimum viable data is a clear learning from several participants.
3. Demonstrate value for users by building out use cases
The idea of digital ID in isolation can feel like an abstract concept and is hard for people to grasp. Demonstrating its value means making it useful to people – building out use cases, and demonstrating the ways in which using digital ID can generate real efficiencies for users in both private and public transactions is an essential precondition for widespread adoption. Linking digital ID to social protection systems has been an important step in driving adoption in some contexts, although alternative ID should continue to be accepted in parallel to prevent issues for those unable to enroll.
4. Engage the private sector, in particular financial services
Engaging the private sector to ensure digital ID can be used to access private as well as public services is essential. But participants noted a dilemma: making digital ID useful and convenient is an essential precondition for broad uptake, while broad uptake is an essential precondition for getting private sector providers onboard. Several participants stressed the importance of getting financial service providers on board early – once digital ID becomes a gateway for financial inclusion users can easily see its value. Many said that private sector organisations who have adopted digital ID have seen significant increases in revenue, and that once this is demonstrated it is easy to get others on board.
5. Build cross-border interoperability in from the outset
Early adopters highlighted the next big challenge as ensuring cross-border interoperability, noting the significant challenges posed by different national registry protocols and data-sharing laws. Countries currently building digital ID systems said that regional interoperability was a key factor, pointing to regional agreements based on existing frameworks. All participants stressed the importance of considering cross-border interoperability from early in the design phase.
6. Design with inclusion in mind: consider the barriers – economic, social, cultural – to adoption across user groups and be creative in how you address these
In all countries, but in particular in LMICs with low rates of digital literacy, connectivity and device penetration, as well as in large and geographically diverse countries, rollout and meeting the needs of all users is a significant challenge. Several participants highlighted the challenges of enrolment across geographies (noting the particular challenges posed by remote locations, islands and other hard-to-access regions) and population groups (refugees, diaspora, children). One participant flagged their digital ambassadors scheme, employing outreach officers for poorer communities to help users understand how to use and maximise the value of their digital ID and to address questions on data protection and other issues. Another participant highlighted that understanding local capacities and needs was an intentional part of the rollout process at the regional and local levels.
7. Identify a single point of government leadership early
Several participants noted that rollout had been significantly delayed over disagreements within government about who should own and drive the project, as well as other roles and responsibilities across departments. One participant stressed the value of creating a single cross-government office responsible for rollout, which works across government departments and is responsible for driving progress. Others stressed the importance of having a high level political champion for the project. In countries with highly devolved systems, getting the buy-in of state or district authorities, and ensuring they have the capacity in place to support rollout is an important step. Participants advised that, while clarity on leadership should be reached early, it was also important not to spend too much time making the political case but rather to focus on demonstrating progress and value.
8. Learn from other countries and make use of international bodies and standards
Several participants said that they had drawn inspiration from early adopting countries in building out digital ID systems, designing similar models as well as learning from challenges. Some said they had found the support of dedicated international ID bodies – the World Bank’s ID4D and ID2020 for example – valuable in the design and rollout process. Many noted the value of exchanges like this roundtable for identifying common challenges and lessons.
9. Use the momentum from Covid-19 to build on what has worked well
Despite presenting huge challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted perceptions around the use of digital tools, with many transactions forced online, and with the emergence of digital health passes introducing users to the value of digital means of identification. Several participants said that they would explore expanding use cases of digital health passes over time. Others said that the pandemic has pushed them to further reduce the need for in person transactions in the digital ID process.