10 minute read 14 Jun. 2023
Old people sitting on the chair

How to build a Digital Identity that supports our vulnerable citizens

Andrew Garner

Oceania EY Government Digital and Technology Lead

Digital transformation leader in advising and delivering connected Government solutions for citizen and provider outcomes. Travels to understand and enjoy our world. Father. Animal lover.

Catherine Friday

EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences; EY Global Education Leader

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.

Nathan Freebody

Senior Manager, Technology Consulting

10 minute read 14 Jun. 2023

Australia’s digital identity initiative is an opportunity to shape a more inclusive Australia – but how we design and deploy it is critical.

In brief:

  • The rollout of a universal digital identity will be a key part of achieving Australia’s digital ambitions
  • A digital identity could also help close equity gaps – or entrench them, if we get it wrong
  • Targeted action across four areas can build and deploy a digital identity focused on supporting our most vulnerable citizens

Monika* lives in a women’s hostel in Perth, after fleeing an abusive relationship with nothing but the clothes on her back. She’s struggling to get her life back on track but finding the critical support she needs is difficult because she doesn’t have her personal identity documents. This makes it hard to access government benefits, banking services, education or employment opportunities – or even continuity of healthcare. Unfortunately, Monika’s story is not a unique one. Many vulnerable citizens, including people living with a disability, First Nations Australians, and those without a fixed address, are being left behind by public and private sector services because of outdated methods of identity verification.

A digital identity can help close this gap, giving Monika, and others like her easier, safer ways to prove their identity and get the support they need. For example, a digital identity with biometric authentication could help Monika verify who she is at the bank or Centrelink. A digital wallet would enable her to send and receive money, and a digital Medicare card could help her access medical services. Monika could even use her digital identity to apply for jobs or access training, to help her rebuild her life.

The good news is that momentum to rollout a universal digital identity is gaining pace. Recognised as critical to realising Australia’s ambition to become a leading digital economy by 2030, the concept has broad support across the major political parties and within the private sector. Digital identity legislation is expected in parliament before the end of 2023, with State Digital Ministers set to be tasked with fleshing out the scheme’s regulatory framework.

But while we welcome this progress, we also urge caution. A digital identity must be designed around the needs of people, particularly those that are most vulnerable, and with a focus on safety. Further, its deployment will need to be carefully considered, to encourage confident adoption across Australian society. If we get this right, a digital identity could pave the way to equitable, inclusive access to the government support and services that all Australians need, particularly the most vulnerable. But if we get it wrong, mistakes will be difficult to wind back, entrenching or widening inequities and eroding public trust in government.

Once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a fairer Australia

It’s easy to see the appeal of a digital identity for the government. Global rollouts and research highlight benefits including enhanced efficiency, reduced fraud and the ability to share data across departments to create seamless, personalised services. The latest Productivity Commission report cites harnessing data, digital technology and diffusion (i.e., sharing) as one of its recommended reforms designed to lift Australia’s productivity and prosperity.

For many citizens, the benefits are also clear. A digital identity could be an easy, safe way to verify our identity, replacing the need to continually share personal information such as birth certificates to prove who we are. The majority (64%) of people surveyed for EY team’s ongoing Connected Citizen research said they would be comfortable using a single digital identity to access government services.

But, as Monika’s story shows, a digital identity could also go a long way to delivering another Albanese government commitment – that no-one will be held back, whatever their background, life circumstances or where they live. It presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close equity gaps, and lay the foundations for a more inclusive Australian society. But it also creates risks. For example, a digital identity is likely to accelerate digitisation across the public and private sector, creating a better experience for people who can easily and confidently access digital services. But for citizens who can’t, their ability to get the support they need could actually reduce, leaving them worse off. It’s an issue on the minds of those we surveyed for the Connected Citizen study, with people expressing concern that a digital identity implemented without ensuring everyone had access and support to use it could increase digital exclusion.

How can Australia design and implement a digital identity that best supports those people who need it most? Monika’s story highlighted some issues – a closer look at current challenges faced by other vulnerable citizens can help deepen our understanding of the complexity of the challenges, and potential for change.

Case study 1: Supporting Indigenous Australians without physical identity documents

Auntie Kath* is a Gunaikurnai woman living in Victoria’s Gippsland region. Part of the Stolen Generation, Auntie Kath never had a birth certificate and has lived in many different places throughout her life. Lack of physical documentation to prove her identity has been a constant challenge for Auntie Kath, limiting her ability to fully participate in education and employment. She’s never held a drivers’ licence or bank account, and isn’t confident using technology.

A digital identity scheme that includes biometric identification could help people like Auntie Kath securely prove her identity without physical documents. The issuing of a six-digit identity number would remove the need to carry around cards or paperwork. And the option to walk into service centres would help ensure people without digital skills, devices or reliable internet could still access the support they need.

According to Lindsay Bridge, from EY team’s Indigenous Sector Services, “Auntie Kath’s story shows that a digital identity has the potential to make a big impact for First Nations people. But it will be imperative that government respect the role of identity and associated complexities. This means it is critical any scheme is co-designed with us.”

Case study 2: Personalising online services for people living with a disability

Nic,* who has a visual impairment, lives in Sydney with his son. He uses screen readers to help him access the internet but still finds it time consuming and challenging to navigate digital government services. Department websites require him to use his assistive technology differently, and some still require Nic to be able to read and input information from physical documents, such as birth certificates.

A digital identity could deliver personalised, connected government services to Nic. When he logs in, online services would automatically be adjusted to suit his needs, for example through larger fonts, voice assistance or inbuilt screen readers. He’ll be prompted to claim benefits he’s entitled to, and offered services that meet his needs – even those he’s not aware of. With his identity verified, Nic would no longer be continually asked to input information from physical documents, making it much easier and faster for him to access the support he needs.

Louise MacDonald, Human Services Partner at EY Australia, said personalised services could be a vast leap forward in realising Australia’s digital government ambitions. “Seamless, intuitive services that offer people what they need, when they need it, creates better outcomes for citizens and government.”

Why designing for everyone, not the majority, must be our priority

These stories, and many more just like them, highlight the urgency of the challenge. Many Australians are already underserved by government services. Any delay in implementing a digital identity or missteps in design, could further disadvantage these citizens.

But these case studies also show the complexity of the challenge at hand. Rolling out a digital identity will be difficult enough. But ensuring the scheme is designed with a focus on supporting the different needs of citizens that most need help, will require a nuanced approach. And, ultimately, it will be the real determinant of success – a digital identity that doesn’t deliver better outcomes for our most vulnerable citizens can only be judged a failure.

So how do we implement a digital identity that is safe, fair, inclusive and human-centred, while still being cost-effective for taxpayers? We urge government to build on momentum with focused, bold action around four areas:

Co-design with all Australians: It’s not enough to consult with communities. Jurisdictions must meaningfully engage and co-design a digital identity with citizens, particularly those groups of Australians who are most underserved by current digital services or impacted by the digital divide.

  • Work with First Nations governance groups: Understanding the needs of different First Nations groups will require close, ongoing collaboration with community leaders. Understanding and respecting the historical nature of identity that may underpin First Nations decisions can help design a scheme that meets cultural needs.
  • Understand and design for accessibility: Working with organisations (including providers) that represent people with a disability will help articulate accessibility challenges and design a digital identity scheme that overcomes these.
  • Establish design hubs in urban, rural and remote communities: Make it easy and culturally safe for citizens, particularly those in vulnerable groups, to engage throughout the design process. Use community hubs to gain a first-hand understanding of specific needs and to continually test the design until completion.
  • Consider how to use government and third-party data to gain insights: Data extraction and analytics can reveal greater insights into citizen needs and expectations, depending on appropriate agreement around data use, compliance and governance.
  • Adopt an integrated technology engagement model: Establishing a public facing feedback portal to gather citizen feedback during rollout can refine outcomes.
  • Identify global best practice community consultation: Other countries’ experiences of rolling out similar schemes can help identify examples of how best to engage with community. For example, Singapore ensured accessibility was central to their digital identity.

Build trust through accountability and communication: Identifying a single point of ownership will create accountability and drive actions, including those focused on expediting digital identity benefits for everyone. Regular, transparent communication of progress throughout the lifecycle of the project can help build public trust and confidence.

  • Identify responsibility for the digital identity: Services Australia is the obvious agency to take the lead, working with services delivery departments/agencies (responsible for digital licence) from each jurisdiction and key stakeholders such as the Digital Transformation Agency. Within Services Australia, a dedicated, focused team should act as a traffic controller for delivery, with direct access to key ministers to remove roadblocks.
  • Develop a nuanced, consistent communication plan: Services Australia and jurisdictional partners can make use of existing resources and channels to deploy a multi-channel strategy to communicate aims and progress. Helping everyone, including people without strong digital or English skills, understand what’s happening will require multiple channels, including ads, social media, news stories, videos and roadshows, and ongoing testing with different cohorts. Communication must be nuanced for different audiences, but underpinned by consistent messaging and synchronised across the country.
  • Communicate both long-term value and short-term wins: Painting a vision of the future under an inclusive, seamless digital identity can help build excitement and buy-in for the process. An iterative communications approach can deliver regular updates. Prioritising deliverables that offer immediate, measurable benefits can demonstrate the scheme’s value and maintain public support.

Develop a cohesive, nationwide benefits-driven approach: A successful digital identity requires a unified effort. Federal, State and Territory governments should work together to leverage best practices that deliver benefits for every Australian.

  • Create a leaders’ task force: Service Delivery Directors-General (or equivalent) should align as the agency that leads communication between the government, agencies and jurisdictions. Sharing assets and learnings can encourage collaboration, not competition.
  • Focus on citizen outcomes: The citizens we surveyed for Connected Citizen said they would welcome more proactive services. Better communication and coordination between departments and jurisdictions could support this by helping the government develop a holistic view of each person’s needs and then address these through personalised services. Focusing on benefits will unify jurisdictions in a common goal – to deliver digital solutions that create better outcomes for citizens, and cost savings for government.
  • Build alignment to enable interoperability: Aligning language, definitions, legal and policy frameworks, standards and technical models and infrastructure will be critical to ensure interoperability across jurisdictions, agencies, and the public and private sectors.
  • Identify leading-class practices from different jurisdictions and industries: Collaborations with the private sector can help identify lessons and leading-class practices across tech deployment, adoption, delivery and communication. Establishing a forum of key organisations from across different industries can help accelerate this progress. Considering how to partner with global leaders in digital government and identity – such as Estonia and Denmark – can support a successful rollout.

Bring the private sector along: In his essay in the Monthly earlier this year, Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers cited the importance of government and private sector collaboration to shape a better society for all Australians. A digital identity can be integral to the economic inclusion Chalmers champions, enabling citizens to easily and seamlessly access services across the public and private sectors.

  • Designate digital identity champions across business: Identify leaders from each of Australia’s key industries, and work with them to communicate the benefits of digital identity to build private sector buy-in.
  • Engage regularly with industry: Senior government leaders should meet frequently with business leaders, partnering to drive participation across industry.
  • Consider policy and incentives: With private sector participation critical to the success of a digital identity, governments may need to consider the use of incentives or even policies to enforce buy-in.
  • Reimagine an integrated government-jurisdiction model: Drawing on private sector expertise and relationships can help develop a more integrated government-jurisdiction model. The private sector’s existing relationships with government agencies and jurisdictions can act as a unifying force to bring them together. Working sessions, forums and the creation of new roles within agencies and departments can drive communication and collaboration between states.
  • Explore opportunities to partner with the technology sector: Working with tech companies can help governments accelerate the development of a digital tool to simplify the integration and security of digital identity within the private sector.

Creating value for every Australian

Accelerating Australia’s digital identity is critical to securing our country’s economic prosperity in a digital future. But ensuring this future brings all Australians along will depend on how we design and implement this nation-shaping scheme. A human-centred approach can create a digital identity that creates long-term, sustainable value for our economy and every Australian.

* To protect privacy, we have not included the names of real people in our case studies. These stories are representative of the identity challenges faced by many Australians and have been compiled based on EY team’s experience and research.


The time for Australia’s digital identity scheme has come. But while momentum to progress the initiative is promising, it’s critical we get the design and deployment right. A digital identity focused on better supporting the needs of our most vulnerable citizens could be a nation-shaping opportunity to build a more inclusive Australia.

About this article

Andrew Garner

Oceania EY Government Digital and Technology Lead

Digital transformation leader in advising and delivering connected Government solutions for citizen and provider outcomes. Travels to understand and enjoy our world. Father. Animal lover.

Catherine Friday

EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences; EY Global Education Leader

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.

Nathan Freebody

Senior Manager, Technology Consulting