Inclusivity, context and trust: reflections on this year’s Think Digital Identity for Government conference

Whilst many familiar themes arose at this year’s Think Digital Identity conference, the resounding feeling was that this was a real moment of change, writes Ilze Skujina, Digital Identity Consulting Lead and Caroline Persson, Digital Identity Consultant for Health & Public Service UK & Ireland at Accenture.

Posted 27 July 2021 by Christine Horton

The pandemic and broader societal changes have shifted the dial on many trends that have been emerging for some time.

Having now had some time to reflect on the day, three key themes stood out as particularly relevant for organisations looking to embrace the benefits of digital ID:

  • Understanding users to create inclusive services
  • Capitalising on contextual forces to drive value
  • Building trust through standardisation to provide a public good

Understanding citizens

Inclusive design was a hot topic for many speakers. Jessica Figueras, Vice Chair of the UK Cyber Security Council, focused on how local councils are at the sharp end of dealing with digital exclusion. She highlighted how simple barriers to entry, like not having official documents, leave vulnerable people excluded from services they are entitled to. There was, she argued, a need to find a balance between establishing the appropriate level of friction for each of their services. Getting the right balance between security and service is essential. Simply put, there is no point providing digital identities that are technically sound, but people are not able to use.

This theme of exclusion was picked up in a different way by Lisa Talia Moretti from the Ministry of Justice, who asked whose responsibility it is to educate the public about how to access digital services. This is an often-overlooked question. We wrongly assume that people will immediately know how to use the services we develop, but often those who need them most are also those who are least equipped to make use of them.

Both these strands of thinking come back to an essential, but often poorly understood, aspect of digital identity. Users. Their needs should inform the choice of technology, but all too often technology has informed the choice.

Capitalising on context

I also noticed many speakers highlighting how contextual forces can help shape digital identity programmes. The most obvious is COVID-19. As a number of speakers recognised, the pandemic has been a digital disruptor of historic proportions. Research done during the pandemic shows that 80 percent of consumers who have increased their use of digital channels expect to sustain these levels in the future. This shift is likely to be felt across government as well as the private sector.

The focus on the pandemic was accompanied by an equal focus on the political will to act. Several speakers emphasised that widespread political commitment is essential to give digital identity schemes the critical mass of users to succeed. Kate Innes at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change even asked the question: “Is Digital Government a technology or political design problem?”

This emphasis on the broader social and political environment is instructive and was highlighted in the panel on international identity that shared stories from the USA, Sweden and Australia. Whilst the services might exist only in computer systems, the people accessing them and the organisations building them are very real. When thinking about how we approach digital identity it is, therefore, essential that we contextualise these programmes. Not only will this help streamline development, it will also help us build services that people actually want to use.

With this in mind, it was encouraging that digital identity is such a prominent feature of the Government Digital Service and strategy for 2021-2024 laid out in Martyn Taylor’s keynote. Of the five main missions he discussed, two focus on improving digital identity for citizens – namely, providing single sign-on for all government services that need it (Mission 2) and creating a simple digital identity solution that works for everyone (Mission 3).

Building trust through standardisation

The final theme that I noticed emerging in a number of talks was how we can help build trust and acceptance through standardisation across the public and private sector. We heard examples from countries like Estonia and Canada where this is being done successfully. In the former, where 99 percent of public services are available online, they have established a standardised approach to digital identity that is used extensively across the public and private sector.

In both examples, this standardisation has been a major driver of delivering better services at lower cost and with reductions in both fraud and error. Both have engaged heavily with stakeholders across the private sector, citizen groups and government to build a consensus. This approach could be instructive for the UK where attempts to rollout national identity services have often been met with resistance or a lack of uptake.

Learning from exemplars such as Estonia, there is an opportunity to redefine digital identity as a public good, like railways or the power grid. ‘The UK digital identity and attributes trust framework’ is a step in the right direction. There is a real opportunity for the UK to become a leader in its own right by developing a trusted digital identity ecosystem that improves access to government services and the economy as a whole.  

So, what does this mean going forward?

Getting digital identity to work in the UK will require a dedicated effort to build trust and public acceptance, as well as solutions that are inclusive by design and work for everyone.

The focus of our next blog will be exploring this further by examining how to build trust, engage and design for citizens and how to embrace ever changing circumstances.