Your future digital government

I had to apply for unabridged birth certificates for our children the other day so I sat down in front of my laptop, browsed to the Department of Home Affairs’ website and logged into the secure Civic Services portal to start the process. I used my new ID card with its embedded personal digital certificate and a one-time code from my smartphone to authenticate myself.

As you can imagine, Home Affairs has all my details and who our kids are so all I really had to do was select the option for the unabridged birth certificates and place the order. The system informed me that because this was the first time I had requested these particular birth certificates there wouldn’t be a charge. I received a confirmation of my request along with digitally signed and locked digital versions of our kids unabridged birth certificates about five minutes after I concluded my request.

The birth certificates were in PDF and I quickly verified that they were signed by Home Affairs using the Department’s current public key (they were) and then forwarded them on to the service provider that requested them from us.

At this point you are probably wondering how I managed to do all of this? You probably had to drive out to your local Home Affairs office, fill out the forms on paper and wait in line to hand the forms over to the person behind the counter and be told you’d have to wait six to eight weeks for the birth certificates to be printed out in Pretoria and delivered to that office. You would then have to return to the office with your receipt so you could collect the pages.

My story is completely hypothetical. That process is not currently possible at the moment. This isn’t because the technology doesn’t exist, it does, or because the law doesn’t currently cater for it, it does. Implementing processes like this requires a different approach to digital government services. In this particular case, the starting point is likely a combination of a number of factors:

  • A secure, complete and accurate citizens’ and residents’ database;
  • A secure portal through which citizens and residents can access government services using a unique digital identity which is linked to the data the government has about them;
  • Digital certificates issued to each citizen and resident along with each person’s national identity;
  • A convenient means of both securing and using a digital identity to authenticate each citizen and resident that has a cross-platform mobile as well as conventional desktop interface.

The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act provides a broad framework for much of what would be required, including digital signatures, digital documents and data retention and evidence. The benefits could be to radically streamline government services and empower citizens to transact more securely and effectively with each other. These benefits are not reserved for government services, they extend to private services too. In fact, a single secure and digital identity for South Africa’s inhabitants could serve as a platform for a variety of providers to develop engagement models that could transform how the country functions.

So why isn’t such a system being developed (or in place already – much of the technology required has probably existed for some time now). The Verge has an interesting post on this topic titled “Our future government will work more like Amazon” which has a few relevant observations, including this one:

The problem is logistics. Sure, the Postal Service would probably love to have some fresh resources to boost up these facilities. But consolidating many offices into one is never easy. And reappropriating human resources would definitely be controversial. But with good digital systems to reduce paperwork, remember previous encounters with citizens, and greatly reduce the need for people to visit brick and mortar offices in the first place, it’s certainly feasible.

From a legal perspective there are very few barriers to this sort of future. Aside from logistics, the challenge is that our culture is still heavily invested in paper and paper paradigms and the change to digital workflows seems to be prohibitively complicated. That said, there are many benefits to going digital including cost savings, better security and improved redundancy (if you work with paper files, how much redundancy is built into your filing system?).

Simply adopting the necessary technologies isn’t going to solve the problem either. Effective implementation is essential and failing to do this has led to controversies such as the SANRAL consumer data exploits we read about recently. I came across another example of poor implementation when I began writing this post this morning, somewhat ironically from the South African Post Office’s Trust Centre which is charged with delivering trusted digital identity solutions:

SAPO_Trust_Centre_screenshot_-_authentication_problem

Leaving aside what must be an oversight, the Trust Centre delivers a key component in this future digital economy. An advanced electronic signature, for example, opens the door to a range of digital transactions otherwise reserved for paper-based transactions. One of the things I would like to do, as an attorney, is commission affidavits digitally. That is only legally possible if both I, as the attorney, and the person who wants to have an affidavit commissioned have advanced electronic signatures. At the moment this has to be done in person but when both parties have advanced electronic signatures (and have been authenticated by the Trust Centre), this could probably take place remotely. That, alone, represents a cost and time saving. Other transactions which become possible include digital contracts to sell land and even truly digital wills.

Going digital can transform how we function and how businesses and government operate. It just takes vision, an understanding of the legalities and risks and sensible technology implementations.