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Blair: Digital ID could help UK move to "proactive" service delivery

A powerful, cross-party axis between Labour and Conservative former leaders could put digital identity cards back on the table. The seemingly unlikely pairing of Tony Blair and William Hague back a new report that calls for the introduction of digital ID cards as well as broad technology-enabled changes to education, healthcare and much else that relates to the state.

The approximately 50-page document is published by The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and is entitled A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain. It proposes the idea of the UK becoming a “science superpower” and depicts how technologies led by AI, biotech and climate change tech can create a new, more economically competitive country with smarter state services.

Among envisioned advantages: simpler cross-border travel, proof of the right to work plus documented qualifications and current tax status. The setup for getting there: a lighter-touch government with far less micro-management, more domain experts taking power and a tilt towards longer-term R&D investments.

On the digital ID cards, the report suggests that "a digital ID could help the government to understand users' needs and preferences better, improving the design of public services. It would make it simpler and easier to access benefits... [and] even help the government move to a more proactive model, meeting people’s needs before they apply for a service, tailoring the services and support they are offered to their individual circumstances and reducing administrative burdens on both individuals and the public sector."

Tony Blair report: Digital ID technologies have moved on

Asked why the time was right for the return of identity cards (when the Blair and Brown Labour regimes failed to pull off the trick), Blair told Times Radio this morning that: “Technology has changed [and it’s a] world away from what it was when we were having those debates … The real world event today is this technology revolution [that is the] equivalent of the Industrial Revolution and unless we harness it properly we’ll get left behind.”

Hague added that technology was a tool to “redesign the state” that, he optimistically stated, could save citizens five days a year in reduced red tape.

Blair said that the pandemic had demonstrated that a desperate need could provide shortcuts to action.

“The toughest thing about government is getting anything down … the system never moves,” he claimed, but with Covid “when we had to move, we moved … We can’t go on as we are, being more heavily taxed and the outcomes are poorer.”

Discussing the proposal for a new, powerful and unelected body to lead on science and innovation, there is a need for “people who know what they’re talking about… and those are in short supply in politics,” he quipped. “It’s got be done in a way where there’s a sense of national unity [that extends] across the political divide.”

Tech firms welcome proposals, with caveats

Margaret Moore, Business Unit Director (Government and Transport) at Sopra Steria UK and chair of the Open Identity Exchange (OIX) told The Stack in an emailed comment: "Digital ID’s also offer up the opportunity for a more reliable identity verification system which can be placed in the hands of consumers and reused across a multitude of services.  “The challenge? Such a future requires collaboration across both the public and private sector; addressing considerations and concerns spanning both business and technology.

"Critically, there is still much to be done to enable the boundaryless cross-sector use of a single digital identity, particularly when it comes to building trust. A framework for the standardisation of identity verification is essential – to improve consumer trust and reliability. Education also plays a central role in adoption for those unsure of the benefits of a Digital Identity, providing clear insights into how data is being stored and what it is being used for.

See also: iProov wins £17.5m One Login contracts, digital ID framework moves to beta

“Digital ID’s offer individuals the opportunity to have their own reusable and accessible data profile directly within their smartphone. With a Digital ID consumers are able to disclose the relevant data, but not expose all their data –retaining the right to protect elements of their personal information that aren’t needed and share only what is essential. We’re on the cusp of Digital Identity becoming a reality and are heading towards a future characterised by a single, trusted digital identity that enables individuals to enter into trusted relationships in real-time and with ease. Fundamentally, Digital Identity has the potential to establish trust between organisations and real people in a digital world, but challenges to its adoption must be met head on, and soon.”

Chris Briggs, SVP of Identity at Mitek agreed, adding: "UK digital identity is a complex concept with many barriers to overcome, yet presents boundless opportunities to the British public. However, continual delays in trust frameworks and legislation have left the UK lagging behind other nations in this space. At the same time, British citizens are suffering from an identity paradox, concerned with how their personal data is used by third parties and government bodies, yet still use big tech platforms and social media that they know could harvest and use their data.

UK Digital Identity proposals a response to schemes elsewhere?

In part, the proposals are a response to the power not just of China in AI and the US generally but also the rise of similar pan-digital schemes in India, Estonia and the Nordics. Digital identity is widely seen as  platform that enables other technology-enabled ambitions. Generative AI and other tools would create “enormous opportunities to reshape personal education and allow people to learn at different speeds and subjects”, Blair said, for example.

Although the plan is certain to attract barracking from some privacy rights proponents, the identity cards scheme could also address hot-button policy issues such as immigration via small-boat crossings and assist in addressing money laundering.

One of the most interesting aspects of the report is a call for greater investment without the heavy hand of ministerial involvement and “excessive micro-management”. The report states:

“The Treasury’s current mindset exists in part as a result of a healthy desire to control overall levels of public spending. However, this must be balanced against the need for and the requirements of investment. This balance has been off for some time.”

Bodies such as UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) could be boosted by longer-term investments that would give room for them to breathe and create an approach closer to the US model. This may be music to the ears of ARIA-booster Dominic Cummings who promoted many similar notions when he was in the Boris Johnson regime. Cummings this morning retweeted a post about the news.

So is this truly significant news for the UK or just another think tank fantasising about a local Silicon Valley? There are echoes of the past here going all the way back to Harold Wilson’s prognostications about the “white heat of technology” and, more recently, Blair’s own heavy spend on modernising government IT. But certainly, Blair and Hague remain powerbrokers and PM Rishi Sunak could use some techie fairy dust to show that he has differentiated policies so it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ - but an interesting one.

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