Governing digital legal ID systems effectively to ensure inclusion and respect for human rights
September 15, 2023
Emrys Schoemaker, Senior Advisor, UNDP & Caribou Digital
Risa Arai, Programme Specialist, UNDP
Benjamin Bertelsen, Product Specialist, UNDP
A robust digital public infrastructure (DPI) has become increasingly crucial for governments, especially when it comes to delivering large-scale, effective public services. For the public sector, the debate isn’t about whether to adopt digital technologies but which ones to embrace and how to ensure their seamless and effective integration. This is particularly true when it comes to digital legal ID, a foundational digital public infrastructure that has the potential to catalyze digital transformation and development opportunities across countries.
Technology and governance must progress in tandem
DPI is made up of digital building blocks, laying the foundation for subsequent innovations. For example, these building blocks may include digital legal ID or digital payment systems that unlock new solutions such as mobile financial services. But like roads and bridges, overhauling an established infrastructure can be daunting. Therefore, it's imperative to be intentional and meticulous from the outset.
The digital standards, regulations and privacy protocols instituted initially will have implications, for instance for government-related e-services and even business ventures. While the technological facets of digital legal ID are often in the spotlight, effective implementation demands robust governance. This ensures inclusion, safety and the preservation of rights.
Ensuring rights-based and inclusive governance of digital legal ID systems is crucial for their alignment with the public good. In essence, the regulations and standards set the ‘rules of the road.’ They guide decision-makers on the most suitable technologies for public service delivery, instil confidence in the private sector to invest and innovate and foster trust among the end users in the systems and technologies.
Modelling a governance framework
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) frequently receives requests for legal, regulatory and institutional support, particularly within the scope of the organization’s legal ID programming. A recent surge in requests mirrors a growing awareness among Member States of the importance of adopting participatory, rights-based approaches to legislative and policy aspects of digital legal ID design and implementation.
Acknowledging the burgeoning potential and significance of digital legal ID, UNDP has taken the initiative to draft a model governance framework. This blueprint is designed to aid the swift establishment of digital legal ID systems globally.
At its core, this framework is intended to outline a normative model of the laws, policies and institutional arrangements that can help ensure the governance of digital legal ID systems is both inclusive and respectful of individual rights. It is informed by UNDP’s governance and digital strategies, which emphasize a rights-based and whole-of-society approach. The framework, for instance, recognizes the importance of civil society’s role in accountability, recourse and oversight. It also builds on long-standing experience and lessons from within the UN System on legal identity and the whole legal identity management ecosystem, which is based on civil registration.
The importance of legal identity is an integral part of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG Target 16.9, which aims to "provide legal identity for all, including birth registration," underscores the widespread significance of civil registration in societies globally.
However, without effective governance, digital legal ID systems risk perpetuating, and potentially exacerbating, the challenges seen in previous identity systems. The governance framework can serve as a reference point, from which government partners can develop their own iterations, adapting it to meet their needs based on their own contexts and circumstances.
Getting it right
For countries already implementing DPI, digital ID has been a powerful force for improving public service delivery and driving economic opportunities. Given its overarching role, proper governance of digital legal ID is paramount. Such governance ensures that stakeholders, who depend on and use these systems, are both cognizant of the rules and committed to adhering to them. ‘Good’ governance mechanisms not only ensure accountability for shared infrastructure but also streamline decision-making on resource allocation for developing and upholding crucial government systems.
Finally, setting unequivocal standards for digital identity systems becomes indispensable if these systems are to align with developmental ambitions and uphold principles of human rights, inclusion and protection.
Legal identity is defined by the UN Legal Identity Task Force as the basic characteristics of an individual's identity. e.g. name, sex, place and date of birth conferred through registration and the issuance of a certificate by an authorized civil registration authority following the occurrence of birth. In the absence of birth registration, legal identity may be conferred by a legally-recognized identification authority. The digital legal ID which is referred to in the blog is a physical or digital credential, as well as the enabling process that supports ensuring that the credential is recognised and trusted. Digital legal ID can be ‘foundational’, with multiple applications - such as a birth certificate, passport or national identity card or intended for more ‘functional’ application such as accessing more narrowly defined services or entitlements. A digital identity system is thus the combination of technologies, systems and institutions that enable these processes.
Learn more about UNDP’s work on building rights-based and inclusive digital public infrastructure.
The authors would like to thank Bronwen Manby, Senior Advisor on Legal Identity, Sarthak Satapathy, Advisor, and Dwayne Carruthers, Strategic Communications Specialist from UNDP for their contributions to this piece.