Aug 20 2021

The Benefits of a Single Digital Identity for Government Services

A single digital ID can streamline and enhance citizens’ experience with the government.

If you’ve attended a National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference over the past year or two, you’ve likely heard a concept bandied about as the holy grail of government technology: a single digital identity for citizens to access and receive state government services.

This is about more than simply having one username and password to access all digital government services. The more significant benefit of an approach like this is that a single digital identity can link together and understand the government services a citizen uses and provide a more streamlined experience.

Illinois has a single digital ID program in place already, but as it evolves, acting CIO Jennifer Ricker said in June to StateScoop, it could have the potential to “give state officials better analytics into which digital services are being used most often and give users recommendations for other services they might like to access online.”

Some states are moving down this path already. It represents a win-win for states and citizens alike, with fewer IT resources spent helping citizens reset passwords for different government services, a more streamlined approach to service delivery and a better overall customer experience. Such systems can become more intuitive and know that if a resident receives one government benefit, they might be receiving a similar benefit, or if they have applied for one license or permit, they might soon need to apply for a related one.

The technology needed to set up a system like this is not incredibly elaborate. The bigger hurdle for state governments will be getting different departments to share their data with peer agencies. Getting them to do so will require political leadership and could be a heavy lift in some states, but the potential benefits to citizens are significant.

The Technology Needed for a Single Digital Government Identity

The good news is that the technology needed to create a single digital ID for citizens across government services is not exactly revolutionary.

As Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at IT consulting firm StorageIO told StateTech, the technology needed to make linkages between different application or databases across agencies could be as simple as adding an export or query capability to an old application or modifying databases so that external queries can access them.

That can be done in a “safe, secure manner where you’re not actually introducing new threats or compromising that data,” he said, via programmatic APIs and other similar capabilities.

“The capabilities are out there, maybe not as elegant as some would like, but it really does come back to the policies around who can access” the data, Schulz said. “What, when, where, why and how can you grant those rights, those accesses, and how can you revoke the access in those controls so that you don’t have an inadvertent breach?”

RLETAED: How can modern infrastructure enable digital government services?

Ohio, with its InnovateOhio initiative, is one of the states furthest along in this journey. The state has developed an identity management solution called OHID, in which each Ohio resident has a single account to access all government services.

“Our goal is ultimately to enable residents to conduct all business with the government without ever having to enter a government office,” former Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers told StateTech earlier this year. “So far, it’s been a great success. We cannot keep up with the demand for the service.”

Current Ohio CIO Katrina Flory told StateTech that OHID runs on IBM’s Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) platform. It is an elegant solution that delivers a lot of tangible benefits to residents.

“If you want to pay your taxes online, you can use an ID to sign into a government website,” Rodgers said. “But if you want to renew your hunting license, why use a different ID? It doesn’t make sense for the citizen. Someone can go to ohio.gov and search for something related to ‘veterans,’ which will take them to veterans services. Or, they can search for hunting licenses without knowing the Ohio Department of Natural Resources handles those licenses. You go to the right area if you type ‘hunting.’ We want that to be as smooth an experience as possible for our citizens.”

EXPLORE: How have government agencies embraced digital services during the pandemic?

How to Help Agencies Onboard with a Single Digital ID

So, if the technology isn’t the hard part of this, what is? “I think the hard part is really setting up the appropriate policies and controls so that you know how to manage that data. That’s the part that we’re trying to sort through,” Colorado CIO Tony Neal-Graves told StateTech.

Different agencies within state government may have varying views on what the appropriate policies are for securing data. Some may not simply want to share their data or have it linked to another agency’s databases.

State CIOs and CISOs can work together to identify which information and security protocols are needed across the board that could be acceptable to all agencies.

Ultimately though, state CIOs and other IT leaders within state government need political cover from either a governor or lieutenant governor to make something like this happen. State CIOs are often not in their positions for significantly long periods of time, so there will need to be sustained political will to get agencies to share data and make a single digital ID a reality.

Although it requires the investment of political capital, the benefits to state leaders should be readily apparent. If citizens have a better experience accessing government services and interacting with state agencies, they are likely to credit governors and feel more positively about state government in general. If technology can help make citizens’ lives easier, that seems like a no-brainer to invest in.

Citizens are getting continually more tech savvy. Younger generations are not going to want to conduct government transactions via paper-based processes or have to sign in to three different websites to get access to services or renew a license. A single digital ID is the wave of the future for state governments. It would be a nice feather in the cap for elected official and state IT leaders if they could make it happen.

This article is part of StateTech’s CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.

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