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Learning from the Gaps in Existing Systems - Good ID in Practice

  • Interview
  • By Laura Goodwin (Namati) and Good ID team (Good ID)
  • 12 July 2019

Laura Goodwin, the Director of Namati’s Citizenship Program in Nairobi, Kenya, talks about the practices of accountability and transparency in Good ID, and what and who is responsible for the good practice that underpins the protection of rights and access to ID systems

According to Omidyar Network: “Transparent, accountable, and other trust-building practices lead to Good ID. System planners, technologists, program managers, policy makers, and investors either build or erode trust with digital ID holders with every choice they make.

“Trust in systems and institutions influences people’s adoption and choices in digital identity programs. And in today’s trust-deficient economy, there are many good reasons why a digital ID issuer would want to support Good ID — if not solely for ethical reasons, at least to mitigate risk and pursue new business opportunities.”

This interview series explores the learning and experience of practitioners to understand how the practice of Good ID can and should play out in the decisions and choices that people make in the design, delivery and management of identity systems.

First up is Laura Goodwin, Director of the Citizenship Program in Kenya for Namati. Namati is building a global movement of grassroots legal advocates with the intention to give people the power to understand, use, and shape the law.

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Individualized assistance: Namati paralegals at work. Photo: Noor Khamis/Namati

What have you learned through your work at Namati that you would feel would be helpful to other practitioners?

Strong legal and policy frameworks are so important, and the right technology is also so important, but practice is often where the rubber hits the road, where outcomes are determined. So for example, whether a legal safeguard that’s in place will be followed, where it’s determined whether the government can be held accountable. And often where we’ll understand better who’s included and excluded. So a law or policy may on its face look like it applies equally to everyone, but then when it’s implemented we may find that certain groups are affected in different ways.

There’s definitely a need to look at exclusion, both in law but also especially practice.

Why and how should the public be involved in this decision-making around ID systems, from your point of view?

The public should be involved in decision-making for a couple of reasons. One is that often, national identity systems affect nearly every aspect of someone’s life. It depends on the country, but in so many places, some kind of identity is required to access services, to enforce rights.

Because changes in the identity system will affect people so directly, it’s important for them to understand, first, why is the system being introduced - is it really needed? Secondly it’s important for them to be able to share input on that.

That’s also good for government, because if a government doesn’t engage the public and just rushes to implement a system that they feel is important for their own interests, there can be challenges around buy-in and acceptance, in terms of whether people are actually going to come forward to register, whether people are going to resist.

Also, that public feedback can help the system be improved before it’s even rolled out. For those reasons, it’s just so important for the public to be involved, both in terms of new systems but even implementation and practice around existing systems.

In your experience, what does ideal public engagement look like?

There should definitely be formal channels. That means things like the ability to comment on pending legislation, or the ability to interact with elected officials around something that’s coming.

There’s also a need for bottom-up engagement in a lot of cases. A lot of times these systems can be complicated. There are so many different interests at play. Communities need to be able to understand what’s happening in what contexts so that they can then engage effectively.

In our own work with legal empowerment at Namati, we engage with paralegals who provide individualized assistance to people as they apply for things like ID cards or birth certificates or other types of identity documents, mostly state-issued identity documents – and at the same time, track cases as a way of monitoring current practice. That kind of paralegal model can also support community mobilization and community advocacy. This is where paralegals are able to share information, facilitate discussion within a community, and then actually help support community members in taking action.

That approach could be for some kind of new system or new law in policy, or it could be identifying challenges that affect people in an existing system and trying to push for greater transparency, for example equal treatment, in that system as well.

Have you had any learning around specifically which types of institution or laws or social contracts need to be in place to support this?

I do think a legal framework is important in terms of setting out some of the specifics around which institutions have which mandates and what kind of process or requirements are involved.

Also, it’s important to have some kind of appeal process. This is more about the identity system itself, rather than institutions in terms of public engagement, but those are important pieces of an ID system, and the public should be able to engage on those different aspects and provide input on how they might be structured.

Maybe this isn’t a social contract, but providing enough time for the public to engage and even question: is this system needed? What’s the purpose and how is it different from what might exist? That’s also really critical. If there’s not enough time for the public to first understand the system and then engage in a process around trying to influence it, the identity system that results may or may not actually work for people.

Of course different contexts will influence how much time could be made available for people to engage in the process. For example, for the process of a government choosing a new vendor and holding a procurement process, less time might be feasible. But if it’s revamping an entire system or bringing in a new system, probably more time would be needed for people to really be able to engage and understand it deeply.

In your experience, how can the public represent itself and its own views in these conversations, and are there others who can or should represent public interest?

In a lot of cases, people themselves can get directly involved. And that can be through so many different kinds of actions. It can be commenting on the policy, it could be engaging with an elected official like the local MP.

It could be some kind of community action, or social media’s also a powerful tool in many cases for discussions amongst people about what an ID system might look like, what’s needed. In a lot of cases, the more that people themselves can be directly involved, the better, but I do think civil society can also play an important role in amplifying public views. This could entail formulating certain recommendations, sharing experience, or linking people to decision-makers so that direct conversation can take place.

At Namati, we work specifically with communities who face discrimination in their application process to acquire identity documents

So engagement is a starting point and then transparency, potentially, is another principle that could guide practice and how are decisions being made. Could you talk a little about why, from where you’re sitting, transparency is also important?

There’s a need for transparency at two levels. One is the setup of the entire identity system in terms of various frameworks and various processes that would be put in place. And transparency is so important in that context, to understand who has the decision-making power, and what options you have if you feel that you’re not treated equally. Or who’s going to have access to the data? Those kinds of things are important at the system level. But I also think transparency around individual decisions is also critical.

At Namati, we work specifically with communities who face discrimination in their application process to acquire identity documents. And a lot of times people aren’t necessarily denied outright, but their case might just be pending for six months or for one year, one and a half years, to the point where they’re no longer able to follow up. They’re no longer able to track their case. And they just have to assume that their case is not moving forward and start the process over again. That’s a huge risk to exclusion, because it means that the process is so opaque, you’re not really sure why one person’s application has gone through and why someone else’s hasn’t.

So, transparency is important around things like: how long someone should expect it to take to receive a decision or to receive their documents? What kind of requirements are there for registration officials to give reasons if something is denied or delayed? This means that someone actually knows what criteria were used and how they met them or not. And then being able to have some kind of grievance redress mechanism so that if it seems like someone was treated unfairly or a decision doesn’t make sense, there’s somewhere they can go that has some independent authority to investigate.

It’s important in general because it affects people, but also specifically around ensuring that exclusion isn’t happening because of a lack of transparency and officials just having the ability to make decisions as they please without being accountable.

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Hands on: Namati works with communities who face discrimination. Photo: Noor Khamis/Namati

Regarding issued ID and state ID schemes so far, how do you feel this kind of principled approach to practice applies in relation to self-asserted ID and defacto ID?

In general a lot of the same principles apply in terms of wanting transparency. So for defacto ID you want to know things like who can access that data. Or with self-asserted ID, are there any links to other data sources that people might be able to view or access as you use it? I do think that transparency is needed.

In my own view, there could be ways that accountability is more difficult, especially with defacto ID, because a lot of times it might be a private company that’s holding that data, so there are some differences in terms of what kind of regulations might exist to govern how that data is used.

Often, people don’t worry so much about defacto ID at the beginning. They’re just going about their lives and not really thinking about the data trails that they are generating and who might have access to that. And a lot of times we sign up for a website or a product and we just agree to accept the terms and conditions without reading them.

In those ways - terms and conditions - there is some attempt to have that information out there. But it’s also up to people to decide how they want to engage with that kind of information. What happens if they don’t agree with something or they see something that’s surprising in terms of what might happen with the data and who can access it? The follow up on that could potentially be more difficult.

There is some level of personal responsibility, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for states or private actors or others to trample on people’s rights

So who has to be accountable? There are a diversity of stakeholders whether you’re talking about a national ID scheme or digital business. Alongside this, the responsibility of individuals to be conscious and aware. Where does this responsibility lies around good practice from your perspective?

The state does have some role to play for different forms of ID. In human rights law, the state can be held accountable for a violation that has been committed by a private actor if there’s knowledge and if certain conditions are met. In the same way, the state does have a role in helping to regulate data privacy and protection, access to data, and various different principles that would be important even for a defacto ID and even, in some cases, self-asserted ID as well.

Maybe this is utopian, but I do think that the private sector and companies that are dealing with this data should also be accountable. And maybe they should also have internal grievance redress mechanisms, or state clearly on their website what is it you can do if you want to correct your data or delete your data, to ensure that people really do have options. So they’re not put in the situation of either I accept the terms and conditions, or I do not sign up for this product.

There is some level of personal responsibility, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for states or private actors or others to trample on people’s rights. Especially because there’s such a big power imbalance between an individual and what decisions and what level of control someone might have, versus the level of control of a company or a state. Ideally, people are paying attention to these things and trying to make good decisions about their own data, but in reality it’s very difficult.

There’s a parallel there also to legal empowerment. People may not know what the law says and if they don’t know the law, it’s hard to use or hard to get involved in making the law better. In the same way, if people don’t have opportunities to get educated about these kinds of issues - data and their rights in relation to ID - it would be very hard for someone to then decide how they want to deal with their data trails, or how they want to make a decision around using, or not, a self-asserted ID.

There’s also just a need, and this again falls heavily on companies and the state, to do some kind of education or to look at how we help people be aware of the pros and cons and tensions around these kinds of issues, so that they can make better decisions.

Sometimes, a new ID scheme will need to rely on what’s gone before and this will have implications for its design and process

So from your perspective, how can we assure accountability, protecting the rights and transparency when it comes to designing and implementing ID systems or updating existing ones?

It goes back to the question about what we’ve learned about the need to look at existing or current ID systems before new ones are introduced or changes are made. First, the question is, is this a new system or is this new technology or this renewal actually needed? What will make the service different from or better than what we have now? Because I think a lot of times there’s a move to something new without asking that question if it’s really needed.

Sometimes, a new ID scheme will need to rely on what’s gone before and this will have implications for its design and process. The new Kenyan digital population register is a good example of how practice can influence inclusion or exclusion. The registration process was supposed to cover all Kenyan citizens in the country, resident foreigners, and also refugees. But in practice, you needed a document to register - either an ID card for an adult or a birth certificate for a child, or for foreigners, an alien card. Lots of citizens haven’t been unable to access a birth certificate in the past either because of things like distance or because of direct discrimination and exclusion. So they haven’t been able to register for this new system.

I think now the government is having to consider what to do next. How do we get those people documents? But it’s something that I think could have been anticipated if they had considered the potential for exclusion in their practice first, and looked at the gaps that exist in the current system. They should have considered: how is that going to affect the roll-out of something new?

That’s so important because often, new systems are layered on top of old ones in some way. So just requiring a previous kind of document can be a big risk to exclusion and to accountability.

In terms of how we address those kinds of things, I do think that the government’s design and planning approach can play a role both in terms of giving people the time and information they need to help them through the process - whether that’s preparing for the system or them actually engaging with the new system.

That experience, that learning that comes in these types of programs, can produce policy insights to be able to flag what sort of gaps are in the current system. So as the new law is designed, as implementation is considered, those kinds of gaps are taken into account. I think that if there’s some kind of integration or at least relationship between newer updated identity systems and legal empowerment initiatives in terms of the design and roll-out of these systems, that there could really be a lot of benefits. That also provides an opportunity: you can push for better decisions and push for better accountability.