Trust & Identity within Local Service Delivery

September 2008

Who should hold the key to your ID?

Helen Olsen looks at the results of LGITU’s research in to local government’s thoughts on identity.

Trust and identity are key issues for the UK’s public sector. A seemingly never ending round of high profile - and most times embarrassing - data losses have led to plummeting levels of public trust in the sector to keep individuals’ data secure.

Consequently, the issue of a national identity card solution has become mired in controversy.

Yet at the same time, the sector has a pressing need to both accurately identify citizens and deliver effective and efficient public services: the right service, at the right time, in the right place and, most importantly, to the right person.

As an indicator of how important this issue is within local government, over one third (36.75%) of the UK’s local authorities participated in LGITU's survey on the subject. Two hundred and sixty one senior officers (with little spare time on their hands) from these 172 authorities returned an online questionnaire aiming to investigate ‘who’ local authorities felt the citizen trusted to own, manage and maintain their identities and how they were currently approaching the identification and authentication of local service users. 

There is no doubting local government’sviewpoint: 98 percent of the 261 seniorlocal authority officers  responding to our survey said that the citizen should owntheir identity.

Just over a fifth (22%) though also felt thatcentral government, and just over one in ten(12%) the local service provider, should have ownership of a citizen’s identity.

But who does the citizen trust to look after their ID? Well, it is not government – just four percent felt that the citizen trusted the government either ‘strongly’ or ‘totally’ with their identity.

This is not really surprising given the recent spate of cringe-worthy examples of public sector incompetence in handling personal data. From lax systems to plain stupidity, disks have been put in the post, laptops left lying around and paper files left on trains.

The two common features of all such incidents are the obvious high sensitivity of the data lost and the equally obvious low importance put on data in the first place.

In his recent review on identity, Sir James Crosby said that any ID card scheme ‘should be designed from the consumer’s perspective’. From the ten principles for the design of any ID card scheme that he put forward it is obvious that public trust in any system is his overriding concern – even to the point of suggesting that it be ‘operated independently of government’.

Trust is earned by those who accept responsibility and prove that they are capable of carrying that burden. Thus far the government has failed dismally to prove it is a responsible data holder.

So, if not central government, who does local government think the citizen trusts to look after identity data? The highest ‘trust’ scores were given to the banks – but at less than half (44%) this is not a universal call for banks to manage identities. There were no other candidates hovering on the horizon either: credit reference agencies (31%), the health service (28%), supermarkets (25%) and trailing in at the rear, local government at 15 percent.

As one respondent pointed out though, “Trust is difficult to define; many people use a service because it’s practical not necessarily because they trust it.”

Many seemed to feel that the question had the wrong focus, it was not who was trusted, but that the approach was wrong: “The essential feature of trust is to place the management of the individual’s identity clearly in the hands of the individual and not a bureaucracy.”

Said one, “Ownership is quite (simple), what muddies the water is who has the right to use it, what it’s used for and how it’s shared with others.”

So, should local government wait for a fully functioning national ID card scheme or forge on with local identity and authentication solutions to enable secure citizen access to local services?

Over half (54%) felt that they had no choice but to press on with local solutions. But almost four in ten (38%) felt that they needed to wait for a national solution. The comments to this question illustrate the conundrum currently faced by local government – they have to enable secure access to services in order to meet Gershon, Varney and transformation goals.

But there is reluctance to waste taxpayers’ money on solutions that may, or may not, work with any national system eventually imposed. “We need an authentication solution now,” said one. “So we cannot wait many years for the ID card scheme. Especially as the ID card scheme is controversial so we cannot be certain if and when it will appear, or whether it will be in a form useful to us.”

As ever, many in local government have a pragmatic approach: “The key here must be to use open standards to ensure integration of various identity stores. Getting citizens to check and authorise the use or sharing of correct identity information will be a practical solution and will increase confidence in, and use of, any schemes which support the use of this identity information.”

Added another: “What might be more expedient are some clear guidelines and principles prepared on a national basis, which can then be implemented locally.” When it comes to identity, local government must show citizens that the benefit to them in placing trust in the public sector is greater than the perceived risk, says Nigel Tilley, strategy consultant, at our report sponsor, Microsoft. “Councils do not need to wait till 2014 for the ID card scheme to deliver a one-stop identity solution. There are a lot of things we can do now in terms of consolidating internal systems to provide citizen facing services and to maximise the use of existing identity providers - both government, such as gateway and government connect, and commercial - to give citizens a safe, and trusted, choice in accessing public services.”

This research was conducted by LGITU and with support from Microsoft UK.

Click here to download the report.

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