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Australians, and those without a fixed address, are being left behind by public and private sector services because of outdated methods of identity verification.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.