The perennial problem of the single identifier

I was reminded of a post I wrote on my old blog the other day by a situation that came up in discussion with a government customer. I thought I’d re-post it on my shiny new MSDN blog.

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I was at a dinner the other night at the Savoy (yes – it’s a tough life!) which was a fascinating combo of industry “experts” and government  “experts” on identity. A topic which governments are very fond of, raised its head. The “single identifier”. That is – the one piece of information that can uniquely and immutably identify you, from all others.

It was entertaining to watch the various reactions of the participants to this notion. The  less technically sophisticated (dare I say, the politicians!) were of the opinion that a universal system (I think they really meant a country-wide, government run system, but let’s not split hairs) couldn’t possibly work, in a technical sense, unless every citizen was issued with a unique identifier for use in all his/her interactions with government. I was almost  stunned, and perhaps simmering slightly under the surface, at how incredibly little thought they expended on understanding the various faces of the argument.

In the UK (for that is where this Planky lives) today, if I interact with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), I use an identifier known as my Unique Tax Reference (UTR). If I interact with the Dept. of Work and Pensions (DWP), I use my National Insurance Number (NINO), and so on for each government department. Many departments share the identifiers – a lot of them use the NINO (an interesting aside – I heard, from somebody at the DWP, that the NINO is not guaranteed to be unique. I’ve had this notion confirmed by many people, but I still often wonder – is it an urban myth? Can anybody point to categorical evidence? Please leave a comment).

You see there is this big political hoo-har going on here in the UK called “transformational government”. Allied to this, you’ll often hear policymakers mention “joined up government”. That’s where I think the mind-block arose. If you give it no more than 2 minutes cursory thought, it seems logical that if you want to do a bit of joined-up-government, then you have to join all these government departments up. The thing that keeps them separate today is the way they identify their users (citizens). Each one has his/her own unique identifier. Solve that problem and you can do joined-up-government till the cows come home, no problem.

But what if you thought about it for more than 2 minutes?

Here’s a little test – just in case anybody happens to be reading. Give yourself 5 minutes of uninterrupted thought just thinking through that little problemette. Then post a comment on whether you think that in order to do joined up government, you need to have a single identifier for all the interactions you make with central government. If you’re already an identity expert then you just disqualified yourself from commenting.

I want to know what a non-expert thinks.


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