The all too familiar

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Once again, a good public plan has been so poorly implemented and badly communicated as to be nearly destroyed

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16 September 2019 | 0

He we are again.

A public initiative designed to make interacting with the state easier and more efficient is mired in controversy, with questions over legality and authority.

The Public Services Card (PSC) debacle is now such a familiar story as to nearly be template driven, joining the litany: National Children’s Hospital, National Broadband Plan, eVoting Machines etc, ad infinitum.

To recap, a report of an investigation that has taken some two years by the Data Protection Commissioner has found that the PSC in use beyond the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) had no legal basis and the blanket retention by the department of supporting documentation to qualify for the card contravenes data protection regulations.

“So, we are left, like water charges, with a reasonable mechanism, poorly thought out, badly implemented and catastrophically communicated — but still absolutely necessary — in ruins”

There is more, but that is the nub of it.

Taking a step back, the whole story just seems too familiar.

Looking at how government could provide services to the public with a growing population, that also has a growing number of older people, with budgets barely changing, demand growing and staffing levels remaining stagnant or falling, a solution was needed.

That paragon of all things digital in government, Estonia, has such a scheme that not only is an identity solution, but also can be used as a travel document within Europe (and Georgia) and to provide digital signatures. It is in use by 98% of Estonians, with 88% of those using the Internet to transact with government.

But pressing need is not the only reason for a PSC-like scheme, the fact is that the majority of today’s citizenry want to be able to interact digitally with the state for all manner of services.

With a smart phone, tablet or other such internet-enabled device now in almost every home, if not hand, people expect to be able to do what they need to, from driver’s licences to passports and tax, digitally and with the minimum of fuss.

A unique identifier, across multiple, either linked or associated services, makes sense. Government CIO Barry Lowry has maintained for years now the goal of being able to give your information to public services once, and then being able to access services appropriately without the need to re-identify and re-classify every single time.

The Public Services Card and the MyGovID scheme seemed like a good idea. However, from the start, it was misrepresented, mis-sold and its lofty rewards were lost amid poor communication.

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when still Minister for Social Protection, banged on about the anti-fraud capability of the card, when he should have been talking about its benefits to citizens. This immediately set people against it, due to the natural suspicion of anything that sounds like a system to catch out the unwary. Then of course, there were the accusations of a national ID card by stealth — again, more misunderstanding, misrepresentation and obfuscation.

And when all of that is combined with the debacle of Minister Regina O’Doherty actually uttering the phrase ‘compulsory but not mandatory’ and then whole thing was obviously going to head in only one direction and at speed.

From the start, the PSC should have been described as a boon for both state and citizen, as a means for people to get what they need and what they are entitled to, without having to go through tedious form filling, lengthy document processing and constant requests for identification and classification.

The scheme should have been described in terms of benefit for the users and the services by reducing effort and friction in delivering services, not for fraud detection or exclusion.

Another key point is that the scheme should have detailed from the start that it was the basis on which more departments and services could work to deliver their services. That point, the expansion of the scheme beyond DEASP, is critical in that not only was it not properly communicated to its customers — the citizenry — it was not properly accounted for in legislation, and with respect to regulation. This demonstrates the sheer hubris with which departments looked at the card and the underlying attitude many have in relation to the services they provide. It seems to betray the attitude of some kind of privilege being bestowed, not services being provided, to an entitled citizen. Assumptions were made about not only the use of the card, but the insistence on it as the only option, erroneously, as it has now been shown.

So, we are left, like water charges, with a reasonable mechanism, poorly thought out, badly implemented and catastrophically communicated — but still absolutely necessary — in ruins.

Where do we go from here?

The Public Services Card needs to be fully supported by legislation for its current and projected uses. It must also be made clear how all data, both direct and supporting, will be gathered, stored, accessed and processed — and disposed. It must be stated clearly how all aspects of the data will be used and how government departments might adopt the card and use it for services other than the initial functions.

Any service wishing to adopt the card must communicate that to the intended recipients of the service, detailing how any amendment or additional data gathering might impact the users. However, all of the above must be done in the context of the benefits it will bring to the user – you and me. If the direct benefit is not communicated, first and foremost, it will continue to be misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented. It will flounder and fail — just as it has already done.

However, the need is still pressing, the concept still valid and the solution is still the best available to provide greater availability and diversity of services to the citizen in the twenty first century. That is a single, linked ID system with a strong legal basis that can serve multiple services, expandable and adaptable to cope with new demands, and robust enough to meet security and regulatory needs.

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