Michael CrossEditorWednesday 13 September 2017

Back on the agenda: digital ID and joined-up government

This conference season some visionaries are ready to party like it’s 1999

In the run-up to party conference season, a flurry of interest in reinventing government and national identity schemes is bringing back memories of Tony Blair’s first administration and its “Modernising Government” green paper 18 years ago.

Speaking today at the publication of thinktank Social Market Foundation’s call for the roll-out of digital identity verification, former minister George Freeman MP, chair of the prime minister’s policy board, said that time had eroded most of the objections to the Blair government’s national ID card programme. And, stressing he was speaking in a personal capacity, he floated the idea of abolishing some of the silos of government to realise a digital ID scheme’s benefits.

“There is a case for two types of minister,” Freeman said. One type would be charged with running the government machine, of “six or seven departments” themed around functions such as finance or people. The second type would handle “thematic issues” cutting across all departments, including personal identity data.

Much has changed since public hostility killed the Labour government’s national identity register scheme, Freeman said. “The economy has gone digital in a way it hadn’t 15 years ago. People are much more aware of fraud.” Meanwhile globalisation has left people feeling vulnerable and the idea that citizens’ contracts with the state are based on domicility has been subsumed by mass immigration, he said.

All this adds up to a window of opportunity to create a national identity infrastructure with the potential to become a global gold standard along the lines of the English legal system. This was very much the theme of Social Market Foundation's report A Veritable Success: the future of identity in the UK. 

Freeman’s comments reflect a tide of opinion that big digital issues are back on the agenda. In a House of Lords debate earlier this month on “digital understanding”, former web entrepreneur Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho (Martha Lane Fox) also raised the issue of silos, claiming that the good work being done to help the government modernise and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally is being dismantled. “Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency,” she said. “Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset because of a lack of digital understanding.”

Another cross-bencher, Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve (Onora O’Neill), looked to an even bigger picture, suggesting the UK “create the basis of a Geneva Convention for the web”. Improvements in digital literacy are impossible while the underlying rules and conventions of the digital world are so obscure, she said. “I do not mean merely that the technical protocols of the digital world are unclear, although few are likely to understand them. I mean that the basic legal, regulatory and cultural standards of the online world remain obscure.”

Digital vision is still risky for elected politicians, given current panics about social media, terrorism and pornography. Freeman’s enthusiasm as life sciences minister for the re-use of NHS patient data probably cost him his rung on the ministerial ladder. (His astonishment at the NHS’s continued reliance on paper records - 19 years since the government announced their abolition - was evident at today’s event.) But the mood could be changing: big ideas could provide a welcome relief from the backbiting of the looming party conference season.