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Patrick Stephenson, Client Managing Director: Central and Regional Government at Fujitsu in the UK and Ireland, discusses why governments need to give citizens control over their own data

Citizens are consumers, and in their everyday lives they use everything from banks, supermarkets and retailers, all of which store personal data and use this to deliver personalised online services and experiences. This immediate and intelligent business model is something that consumers have come to expect.

However, this isn’t the case when it comes to government services. In fact, citizens often experience the exact opposite, finding themselves having to create new accounts for every government department and inputting the same information repeatedly. But why is the public sector experience so different, and why isn’t data shared across the government?

Creating a digital identity

The root of this difference stems from the UK lacking a digital identity solution. Combined with the fact that departments, agencies and authorities are separate legal entities, and the cultural and legal barriers around sharing our data with one another, public services are unable from keeping up with the private sector.

It’s about time that everyone should be able to register for a government approved digital identity or single user identifier. If citizens don’t have a verified e-identity and a way of validating themselves, it makes it much harder to provide services to them. Crucially, this process doesn’t need to be complex, and it shouldn’t evoke concerns about “big brother”.

An easy way of establishing this e-identity would be through a smartphone app connected to a secure digital vault which stores commonly asked information, such as names, addresses, and verified documents like birth certificates. This vault would then be linked to multiple distributed databases across a government holding system of record personal data such as health records for example.

The distributed database is especially important, as it protects individuals’ privacy by preventing government departments or other third parties such as hackers from accessing all the data – for example, in this way HM Revenue and Customs would not have access to health data that the National Health Service might use, or vice-versa.

Why does it matter?

Giving people control over their own data can have a dramatic impact on their quality of life. For example, if a citizen experienced a life-changing accident that reduces their mobility, they would have to apply for a disability allowance, which can take up to three months. This involves many forms and trips to government offices to have that status verified. Worse, this is happening at a time when they are less than likely to be mobile. But why should somebody have to go through this?

As the NHS already knows that the citizen had an accident, and has processed their relevant health information, this data should automatically filter into the system that provides the benefits allowance. This system is called ‘invisible government’, as it proactively anticipates the events in each citizen’s life, giving them what they need when they need it.

This model is in operation in Estonia, which is the world leader in terms of delivering e-services to its population. And it’s all based on the principle that citizens should be able to choose what happens with their data. If you are entitled to a service you shouldn’t have to apply for it.

Not only is this better for individuals, but it also helps the government to run more efficiently. Currently in the UK, disability benefits must be independently vetted by an external contractor costing hundreds of £millions, while in an automatic, digitally-enabled system, the cost of this external contractor could be removed.

And of course, the time efficiencies speak for themselves. Civil servants won’t have to spend so much time chasing paperwork, while citizens get access to the services they need faster. It’s better for everyone. So, what does a government need to do to get there?

Picking the right technologies

The most crucial aspect of establishing a digital identity and citizen database is picking the right technologies to support this. Thankfully, many nations can learn from Estonia, which has already laid the groundwork.

And a key solution is blockchain. This technology makes information immutable, allowing users to see if data has been changed, when it has been changed, and by whom – which is ideal for protecting and tracking citizens’ private data. It can also be secured so that the user can choose to share it only with a select group of people or institutions, in much the same way that people already share data between the apps on their smartphones. And blockchain isn’t a new technology – Estonia has been using it since 2008.

What’s more, Estonia is a great template for any modern government. They have built an entirely digital culture by making bold choices with new technologies and focusing on providing everyone with a digital identity. Fujitsu has worked with the Estonian government on the first three iterations of its system, giving it a unique perspective on the situation in the UK – and what needs to be done to improve it.

Making choices about your own data

While it’s probably too much to say that a digital system will solve all the challenges that come with public services, it’s clear that in the future e-services will ease a lot of stress and cost for both citizens and the government itself.

And the key to it all is giving citizens control over their own data. Being able to choose to share citizens’ data, or not, provides huge benefits to society. For those that choose to, they can reduce the hassle of applying for different services, and simply receive them automatically instead. Ultimately, it is the individual’s data and they should be able to use it to make their life easier and more productive – that’s what government is for.


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