As we push further into the digital age, we unconsciously change how we perceive and expect services from government. This is particularly true of digital natives who, by birthright, have what I call the “ask only once” expectation.
Digitization addresses two broad government objectives—to increase transparency and to improve speed of service for citizens. The two elements necessary to achieve this are data and identity. Combined effectively, they provide potent fuel with which to provide services. The challenges of yesterday are the opportunities today and large data is easier to manage and share with citizens or agencies in order to effectively provide services. The key is to “unduplicate” the work for citizens and public servants using disruptive technologies like AI, robotics, and blockchain.
With all the tools (networks) and fuel (data) available, government should aim for the “ask only once” point. Most data and identity is with the agencies or available to governments and same goes with citizens, this situation leaning towards transparency. To put it simply: citizens and governments know each other much better than they did a generation ago; we need ask fewer questions of one another and don’t have to provide KYC at each stage of requesting a service.
The Aadhar card is one example of Indian government trying to seamlessly integrate services. High school grades are now available in a government database and linked to each student’s Aadhar number. Students should be allowed to send in applications without transcripts. The college can check everything with the Aadhar number.
Humans have historically spent a lot of time and resources producing things or providing services—from manpower to produce food to fossil fuels to ignite the industrial revolution. While we have succeeded in making the production of goods and food produce more efficient, we now have to better manage the huge amounts of data we generate and become leaner and more effective with data management. The future of data management means producing relevant data but not producing too much to manage. With tools like AI and blockchain we can avoid duplication of work and streamline identity management, while with biometrics we largely resolve issues relating to individual identity. The next step is to identify what data governments should manage in order to reach the “ask only once” point.
Although we seem to have everything to make “ask only once” a reality, we must still address how agencies secure this data. This is a challenge in democratic societies where privacy issues are respected; a recent Supreme Court judgment on privacy in India being a case in point. Citizens must have confidence in their agencies and this confidence must stem from legislation, much like it already does for the protection of physical property. The Estonian Tax and Customs Board’s strong focus on transparency for example, has helped it become one of the most trusted organizations in the country.
The challenge is that unlike physical assets, our digital data is easy to access and potentially to tamper with. If government is to provide services seamlessly, it must first adequately secure our data with digital locks. This can be difficult insofar as much of it resides in the cloud and must be regulated by international treaties. Facebook and Google, for example, are often ordered to share information by national courts. Things become complicated when companies fall back on national data protection laws or rely on the unenforceability of national legislation.
Finally, most citizens today already have a digital footprint. It is in fact difficult to imagine that in a few more years anybody with citizenship will not have one. We are past the stage of asking who needs to be in the system. We are in the system.