Four years after the last government's identity card scheme was ignominiously scrapped by the incoming coalition, Labour politicians are being urged to look again at the issue. This time the idea is not to set up a single national identity database but "an official UK online federated identity management framework" providing electronic proofs of identity for both government and business purposes.
Such a system of "universal electronic proofs" - apparently a more far reaching version of the Cabinet Office's current Identity Assurance Programme - would "ensure compatibility with all modern services that require their use".
The idea is one to emerge in a report by Labour Digital, a grassroots network set up six months ago. Number One in Digital proposes a menu of new and revived ideas to put the UK in the forefront of digital developments. Unusually for a party political document in the run-up to a general election, it concedes that the current government has got some things right.
While conceding that the UK is already the highest net exporter of ICT services among G7 countries and leads the G20 table in internet use, the report claims that in web connectivity "We are playing catchup". It says nationwide access to 1 Gbps broadband in homes, businesses and public buildings, with 10Gbps services for tech-clusters, should be an early priority for the next parliament. Local councils should be resourced and encouraged to develop and expand existing public space Wi-Fi networks to provide free access across public spaces. A future government should also require transport providers to offer reliable, blanket Wi-Fi across their services.
Among proposals relevant to the public sector are:
- A central data repository through which citizens and businesses can exchange data with the government. "This platform would allow local authorities to share their data in a central sharing environment, and open up the potential for shared applications for many authorities to be built using standardised data formats."
- Electronic voting for national and local elections as a first step towards digital interactive democracy. In one of its blue-sky proposals, the report suggests that 20% of the electoral college of the House of Lords be allocated to the public "who would vote on legislation online and be supported by an institutionalised briefing service". This would help to reposition the House of Lords "as the most broadly-based forum for scrutiny of legislation".
- All 150 of the highest-volume government transactional services converted to a digital-by-default standard by 2020.
- Making 50% of all application programming interfaces for transactional public services available by 2018. "This would allow anyone to gain access to the read and write APIs of the most used public services, ushering in a new era of beneficial innovation and government accessibility."
The report concedes that "great leaps have been made" by the current government, particularly in establishing the Government Digital Service. However "Sadly, government has been the sector least changed by digital". To help local authorities to reap the benefits of digitisation, the service "should be expanded to create an overall Local Government Digital Service (LGDS), providing resourcing and support in helping to upgrade existing processes and apply GAAP [government as a platform] resources."
The LGDS "would be based on the GDS model but take the form of a coordinated coalition, empowering local bodies to assess, debate and commission digital projects, with support from the Local Government Association (LGA), SOLACE and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)."
A battery of new quangos would help the process along.
- To ensure that the "enormous opportunities from the use of big data can be realised" the government should establish an Independent Committee of Data Ethics responsible for writing a Code for Responsible Analytics.
- A Digital Ombudsman would ensure that "digital utilities and essential services, including those provided by large internet companies, are run in the public interest".
- of government IT procurement "could benefit from the establishment of a National Institute for ICT Excellence (NIITE)". This permanent body would comprise "experienced civil servants and industry specialists, providing expertise and objective, evidence-based advice and encouraging organisational learning for government when procuring digital services and investment".
Last but not least, UK Digital Board would report to the prime minister, recalling perhaps the old Office of the e-Envoy set up by Tony Blair.
Introducing the report, Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham, says "Labour will be the party of the digital future, just as we were the party of technology in the 1960s." However the report's authors stresses that it is a wish list - not official Labour Party policy. Some of the proposals are "experimental in nature". How many make it to the party manifesto remains to be seen.