Civil registration and vital statistics - CRVS and digital public infrastructure - DPI: Why their integration is important for digital transformation

UNDP and partners have been hosting a number of dialogues in 2024 on connecting the CRVS and DPI communities. This blog is a summary of these discussions, advocating for their integration. 

May 9, 2024
Photo: Rochan Kadariya/UNDP

Risa Arai, Programme Specialist (Legal Identity), Governance, BPPS, UNDP 
Benjamin Bertelsen, DPG Product Specialist, CDO, UNDP 
Philip Setel, Vice President CRVS, Vital Strategies 

As countries progress in their digital transformation journey, the integration of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems with Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) is fast becoming a strategic imperative. The integration of CRVS and DPI holds the potential for improving service delivery and safeguarding human rights, therefore serving as the foundation for accelerating progress towards the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. Yet, achieving this result is not without its challenges.  

The motivation

CRVS systems encompass the recording of vital events from the birth of an individual onward. Birth registration establishes an individual’s legal identity; the registration of death terminates it. However, CRVS systems are often fragmented across various government entities, such as civil registration offices, municipal records offices, and health facilities recording birth. Whenever a civil registration database and a national ID database are not linked, there is a risk of discrepancy in the data recorded about an individual. Left unresolved, such a discrepancy in identifying information could prevent access to critical public and private services. Furthermore, failure to remove or retire individuals from these databases upon death can lead to benefits such as pensions being incorrectly paid to individuals who are already deceased. 

On a societal level, these inconsistencies can lead to inaccurate allocation or incorrect denial of public assistance, misallocation of funds, corruption, and incomplete data for evidence-informed policymaking. These are just some examples of the need for integration between CRVS systems and digital public infrastructure to  ensure that it serves both people and the planet, as stated in the multi-stakeholder-led DPI Safeguards initiative.

With these concerns in mind, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently convened experts and thought leaders from both CRVS and DPI communities of practice. The goal was to discuss the importance of ensuring CRVS systems function as a foundational layer of DPI and the merits of improving CRVS systems by adopting a DPI approach. Besides the potential for improved data accuracy and enhanced service delivery, the discussions shed light on some of the challenges that must be addressed to fully realize the benefits.

These are three key takeaways from the discussions:

1. Embrace the principles of universality and interoperability

CRVS systems are the bedrock for establishing legal identities. Over the years, they have captured vital events in a standardized manner and maintained verifiable personal records. With the integration of well-functioning digitized CRVS systems, service providers and beneficiaries alike can have increased access to more trustworthy and up-to-date data, which underpins access to various DPI services. CRVS systems built around the principle of interoperability can reduce identity fraud and corruption and ensure secure and responsible data exchanges for identity verification processes. From requesting public assistance to seeking private services, having this reliable, interoperable data in place can fast-track decision-making across a range of everyday needs. When vital events data are captured once (through civil registration) and used many times (in the provision of identity documents or to populate functional databases and registers), efficiency and consistency are introduced to benefit both the individuals’ seeking services and the DPI that provides services.  

CRVS systems have, by definition, a commitment to universality – to leave no one behind. This commitment, a shared objective of DPI, is expressed in the target of Sustainable Development Goal 16.9: “Provide Legal Identity for All,” with a 2030 target of universal birth registration. This shared objective provides further impetus to harmonize and rationalize how everyone is counted, provided a digitalized legal identity, and served through a comprehensive DPI. 

2. Accelerate DPI approach-led digitalization with dedicated funding 

In many low- and middle-income countries, CRVS systems have been paper-based. Digitization of CRVS systems and broader digitalization require appropriate funding and institutional as well as government commitment. Compared to digitalization efforts related to national ID and digital ID, progress in the digitalization of CRVS systems has lagged given the reliance on legacy technologies, comparatively limited resources, and decentralized business processes. To realize the benefits of adopting a DPI approach, CRVS systems have to evolve with an accelerated focus on digitalization. This would promote interoperability with other existing and emerging digital systems, thereby improving business and institutional processes that effectively and efficiently serve the needs of people.     

3. Focus on people and their rights  

Establishing identity at birth is paramount -- a birth certificate is proof of one’s legal identity. Without this critical first step, there is a risk of people’s fundamental rights being violated, such as their right to nationality, right to health, and right to education. In some countries though, digital IDs or national IDs are not based on civil registration and are sometimes only granted once a person reaches a certain age. The downside of this practice is that it excludes children and when it is not tied to civil registration, may not be actual proof of legal identity. It is therefore important to have a legal identity system that is inclusive of everyone, including children, woven in as part of the foundational fabric of DPI. Early introduction of children’s digital legal identity can also reduce the potential for identity theft, so this is a critical pillar of protecting the rights of children who now live in an increasingly digitized world.  This can be instrumental in upholding human rights principles, ensuring equity, and inclusively protecting individuals’ privacy.  

The path ahead

As more countries design and implement DPI, rethinking CRVS systems with a DPI lens, and vice-versa, could yield numerous societal benefits in years to come. Moreover, aligning and making interoperable digital identities can also have some immediate benefits that can be cost-saving for countries and institutions. Furthermore, it is a strategic imperative for building a more connected, efficient, and equitable digital future for everyone. The knowledge exchange meeting with the CRVS and DPI thought leaders and experts unearthed critical insights to move dialogues and action forward. In the coming months, the discussions will continue within ‘glocal’ (global and local) digital ecosystems to better identify challenges and create sustainable solutions that can support countries in their digital transformation journey.