Who are you? How to identify people for public services.

Updated: Jan 10, 2019


Who are you?



This is the first question we are asked by any on-line self service system.


We need to prove who we are to:


1) claim eligibility for something - prevent fraud,


2) access information about ourselves or our children that public services hold on our behalf.


Why are you asking?


Local Government service users may well think that actually - the council knows who we are already. Councils have plenty of data. The data is as up to date as the last public servant that visited them at home, the last person we spoke to on the phone or the last person we saw when we came into the office.


Given that every council has at least 16 personal data sets for every adult citizen, why are we asking very busy (in some cases chaotic) people for more data?


How can we make it better - by that I mean easier, quicker and frictionless - to validate our identities?


If councils master their 16+ main data systems that hold names, addresses and reference numbers - in real time - (as the London Boroughs of Brent and Camden do) they may well be able to confirm eligibility for services without those people even having to apply (see the Southwark blog and the ‘two tools every council needs: No 2‘ blog).


For example - if you are eligible for a blue badge for disabled parking or concessionary travel - and we have data to say your circumstances have not changed - then these can be renewed every year without any reapplication. That saves around 80% of the administration.


Stop and start again


I am not about to design the solution to number 2) on the fly. I think this should be done with real people who will be using the services.


The Universal credit roll out has been made much worse because around two thirds of people cannot validate themselves using the government ‘Verify’ system. It does not work for them.


Another universal service about to undergo a similar digitisation is the ‘Red Book’ the personal child health record for 0-5s - this is used by new parents and by Health Visitors. It should not be designed by people who do not have children or by exclusively shiny, happy, digitally included mothers.


My suggestion would be for a wide range of new mothers including single parents - across the country - to design and decide how they would like to be authenticated.


Perhaps to take a step back - and ask them whether it helps them at all to have their child's records put on line. Pay particular attention to the naysayers - they are alerting you to risks that you may not be aware of. Do nothing is an option.


What would be the easiest and safest way to prove who they are on line - and can it be personalised to their preference? Do they feel that there is a need for two factor authentication? They may like the idea of voice recognition. Get all the ideas down - and bring the solution up to date with biometrics and other technologies.


John Mortimer outlines his approach:


“When I attempt to understand the problem to solve, I use a systems thinking approach This allows the problem to be viewed from outside-in, the customers purpose and what matters to them. If they had done this they would have realised how councils do verification pre-digital. One common way they currently do verification is by simply looking at their other records on council systems about that person, like council tax, or housing. It takes a minute or two. (NB... from Hilary - the Brent and Camden citizens indexes bring this name and address data together for all their largest databases).

Then I would look the level of complexity in peoples lives and how they would choose to approach public services. Often they need to talk to someone, phone or face to face.

It sometimes seems we are forcing Digital verification on everyone - when one of the fundamental principles of Digital by Default was always to offer a range of channels, not simply one.”


Are government people best placed to lead this? Do the public trust them?


On the other hand - face scanning at airports for example mostly works now. What were the critical success factors?


Head off to a community hall toddler group - with some women that can talk to other women respectfully - and start there.