This article was originally published by Zetes' Regional Director ECOWAS/CEMAC, Jérôme Coulon, on his LinkedIn.
Based in Lomé, Togo, Jerome has been ZETES’ Regional Director ECOWAS/CEMAC since 2014.
His main focus is to work together with the countries of the two Regions to implement their Population Registers as authentic source of national identification based on a strong civil register, centralized, computerized and aligned with international standards.
Know your customer. That is a challenge our companies face every day. This challenge, however, is equally (and sometimes even more) a concern for our public authorities. Although obviously the term “customer” should be replaced by “citizen”. Every citizen is born and dies, and between those two landmark events, he or she goes through many transformational phases of life. Each phase involves its own separate set of needs and requirements. It is the government's responsibility to satisfy those needs as far as possible by implementing appropriate policies. This is possible only if the milestone events marking each phase of the citizen's life are identified as accurately as possible and updated whenever necessary. In other words, you must know your citizens to be able to guarantee their identity, nationality, and civil rights, as well as their ability to use any social services for which they are eligible.
In too many countries, the quantity and quality of information the authorities collect concerning their own citizens is insufficient or badly shared. There are many reasons and explanations for this situation, but none of them constitutes an insurmountable obstacle. As a government, the essential thing is to invest sufficiently over the long term to set up a good identity ecosystem on a national scale, accompanied by appropriate legislative and administrative reforms. But where is the best place to start?
A digitised civil registration system
First and foremost, the priority events such as births, deaths, and marriages should be recorded officially and kept in a centralised database: a civil registration system. This constitutes the beating heart of any identity ecosystem. But whereas in the past this heart was made of paper, civil registration systems are now increasingly being computerised. And that's the problem in many countries: the authorities are not yet, or not far enough, along the road to digitising their civil registration system.
The good news is that a few small steps can get them onto this path. For example, simply installing PCs equipped with basic vital events management software in their civil registration centres. Even just using this to record births digitally, as they are the ideal starting point for an identity ecosystem (United Nations General Assembly, September 2015, Sustainable Development Goals, ODD 16.9). Especially since, by doing this, they can also directly assign a legal identity to this new citizen who has just come into the world.
This identity should ideally be based on a unique identification number that will serve, in the future, as the key to identifying the citizen during data exchanges between the information systems of different government departments and/or ministries.
A computerised civil registration system is the primary component for building identity ecosystems destined to contribute to improving the efficiency of governance. To give just one example: to provide social benefits, the authorities should start by confirming that the claimant is still alive. This information, which is known to the civil registration system, should be available via read-only access to the public or private organisations that provide services to citizens, on a need-to-know basis. In the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic, far too much aid has been distributed to deceased persons, whilst other citizens, who are clearly alive, have been unable to receive benefits due to lack of a legal identity. An integrated and digitised national identity ecosystem taking into account all of the data available from all of the sector-based information systems, including the civil register, would have enabled a rapid response targeted to help the groups in greatest need.
From this point of view, a government is very similar to a large company with several departments.
To operate smoothly, all of the departments must also have access to certain information, particularly information concerning customers, suppliers, personnel, etc. All of this information is also available in centralised fashion in their online company information systems (ERP, CRM, etc.). Likewise, States must be able to develop a central information and communication architecture. This must not only give access to public data concerning the citizen, some of which comes from the civil registration system, but should also facilitate communication between all of the information systems of approved public or private organisations. To summarise: this means that, to connect the various information systems of stakeholders needing to interact with the identity ecosystem, these systems must already have been computerised. Without digitalisation, there can be no interoperability.
The population register as dashboard
Once the government has successfully completed the interconnection of the information systems of the different sectors, which is essential in setting up an identity ecosystem, it is ready for the next step: creating a population register. This can be used like a dashboard for this national identity ecosystem.
In addition to the civil registration data retrieved (marital status, death, household, etc.), the population register can also provide access to other data, which it finds in a variety of sector-based information systems. Each of those is managed by a government department and contains information about the citizens related to the specific remit of that department. The ministry of security in charge of border checks is, for example, able to share information on foreign nationals staying in or leaving the country, as well as citizens going to live abroad or returning. This last piece of information, for example, can also come from the ministry of foreign affairs. Other information can be used to complete a person's identity file in the population register: the ministry for transport can say whether or not the person has a driving licence, the ministry for work and employment can provide data concerning occupational status, and the ministry of justice can send criminal record information, where applicable. These are just a few examples of how the population register is the product of a continual updating process from events initially recorded in various themed information systems. In this way, up-to-date information about individuals can always be available, obtained from authentic information sources and without creating duplicates.
Alongside this continuous overview of personal information concerning each individual member of the population, this type of register also provides an overview of the population. The demographic statistics give authorities an invaluable visibility of the size and composition of their population. That is the only way they can really get to know their people. This completes the circle, because this demographic knowledge is precisely what allows the population register to be used not only for administrative purposes, but also for management. In particular, it enables better budgets to be drawn up based on the public funds available and the most genuine, greatest, or most urgent needs of the community.
The population register also contributes to the creation of social protection systems, voting systems, public education policy, and a research tool for law enforcement and judicial authorities, etc.
In summary, a population register is also the essential dashboard for socio-economic planning and enlightened decision-making by the State.
The National Register of Natural Persons as a starting point
Under the impetus of the World Bank's ID4D programme, most countries are choosing to create a National Register of Natural Persons as a starting point for this identity ecosystem. In fact, the matter of a civil registration system has always been complex and difficult to move forward, even at a time when civil registration centres are rapidly becoming computerised. Creating a national register of natural persons, however, with the aim of giving each resident a unique, digital, legal identity, making them legitimate in the eyes of the government and, above all, quickly giving them access to a whole set of public support programmes and policies—that operation turns out to be easier to implement than computerising the civil registration system. That is why making the national register of natural persons the first building block in a reliable national identity system, closely followed by (or developed at the same time as) the computerisation of the vital events management system and other sector-based information systems, finally ending up with a population register as the national identity dashboard, as described above, could be a pragmatic approach.
To find out more about this topic, you can download the Zetes white paper “At the heart of the population register: Challenges, analysis, and approach”.