As of January 1, 2008, anyone entering the United States will need either a passport or a special identity card. Public Security Minister Stockwell Day appears to have rejected the second option for Canadians. We will rely on passports, he tells us.

This article challenges the wisdom of that decision. It uses three examples to make the case that we need our own national identity card now:

  • The British government is already a long way down the road to creating an identity card and for many of the right reasons. It realizes that the card is about much more than security.

  • The Canada Revenue Agency has made some notewor- thy progress on the equivalent of an identity card for businesses. If we can do it for businesses, why not for individuals?

  • A recent pilot project in Alberta helps us see why such a card is critical to ensure the sustainability of our social programs.

In my view, we should treat the US deadline as a wake-up call. A national identity card of some sort is going to come ”” sooner or later. Our governments need one, but not just for security reasons. It is a critical management tool in a world that is increasingly dependent on information. We would be wise to get on with it now while we have a chance to confront the issues honestly and directly. Otherwise it is likely to come in the aftermath of some crisis. That is the wrong time for such a discussion. In that climate, security far too easily trumps privacy.

As part of its homeland security strategy the US govern- ment wants to know ”” with something approaching certainty ”” the identity of every indi- vidual who crosses its borders. It is determined to do everything in its power to ensure that no one who enters poses a threat. It views the pass- port and special identity card as critical tools for achieving this goal.

Stockwell Day has concluded that the development of an identity card is too expensive and the timelines set by the US are too tight to produce it. The Harper government is also less than confident about the technology. Having lived through the era of the gun registry, with its endless computer glitches and crashes, it is unenthusiastic about new, expensive and untested systems.

As important as they may be, nei- ther the cost nor the technology gets to the real issue. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US government has made it clear that it is deadly serious about security issues. This has raised a big red flag over how the card might be used.

There are two parts to the process. The first is to verify identity, which will almost certainly involve some kind of biometric identity mark, such as a thumbprint or an iris scan. The infor- mation will then be recorded on your card and stored in a central database. When you arrive at the border, officials will scan the card and/or your thumb or iris. The system will compare it to the information in the database, and if it matches, your identity is confirmed.

The second part is tougher. Once offi- cials know that you are who you say, how do they know that you are not a threat? The system will scan the data- base to see whether anything worrying turns up, such as a criminal record. But this raises a number of unsettling questions: How much information about you do officials need to feel secure? How do they get it? Who controls it?

The answers to such questions are unclear. In theory, the database could include anything from your medical and tax records to information on your friends, hobbies and personal tastes. Many people see this as a slip- pery slope. Who will decide how much information is too much, they ask? The scheme looks to them like a thin- ly veiled attack on privacy.

Certainly, such issues deserve and need a serious public airing. But before we simply side with the critics, it’s worth taking a look at things from the British viewpoint. It gives us a different per- spective on the national identity card.

Tony Blair’s Labour government will introduce a new national identity card in 2008. By 2013 it will be com- pulsory for all UK residents. While the government certainly sees the card as important for national security, that is hardly the only ”” or even the principal ”” reason behind it. Indeed, it seems likely that the UK would be creating such a card even if 9/11 had never hap- pened. The reason lies in Blair’s vision of twenty-first-century government. Over the last two decades, the British government has invested tens of bil- lions of pounds in a new generation of public infrastructure based on informa- tion technology. The goal is to create what Blair calls ”œjoined-up govern- ment.” The national identity card is a lyinchpin in this system.

Suppose I move from Ottawa to Vancouver. I will have to change a number of documents, such as my driv- er’s licence and health card. In principle, this could be done in a single visit to a Web site or service counter, but only if the clerk can access all the rele- vant information about me. At present, that is not possible because it is stored in databases across the country under all kinds of different identifiers, such as my name, address, SIN num- ber, birth certificate, health insurance number and dri- ver’s licence number. In many cases, neither I nor the clerk would even know where to look.

Joined-up government connects these fragments. To do so, it needs a single, reli- able way of identifying which pieces of information belong to which person so the right ones can be brought together at the right time. The critical piece here is a ”œunique identifi- er,” a single number or name or biomet- ric mark that can serve as the electronic address under which all information about a particular person is stored.

My unique identifier is thus the master key that would unlock access to my identity. It is also a critical tool of twenty-first-century government. It makes it possible to access my person- al data from across the system. As a result, it lets officials respond to my request for services quickly and effi- ciently, anywhere, anytime.

Now, when opponents of the nation- al identity card hear this, they are usually unimpressed, even dismissive. ”œOh, it’s just service delivery,” they say; ”œdriver’s licences and that kind of stuff. It would be nice to improve these services, but is it really that important?”

In this view, the risk to privacy looks like a high price to pay for what is a pret- ty small return. After all, is it really so hard to go to two different places to get, say, my driver’s licence and my health card? And, indeed, lately Blair’s initiative has been getting a bit of a rough ride because of criticisms of just this sort.

But the view is myopic. For one thing, it underestimates the deeper potential for change in Blair’s joined-up government. Simple services like getting a driver’s licence or a passport are only the tip of the iceberg. Just below the sur- face lies a far more ambitious program of simplifying government regulations, standardizing systems of accreditation, coordinating health services and so on. All this and more is potentially part of joined-up government.

There is a more troubling concern here. It is the critics’ failure to consider seriously the costs of not joining govern- ment up. There is a kind of dismissive complacency in their argument, which suggests that we have always done things this way and it has worked pretty well so why should we change now.

In fact, the choice is not between the government we know and the one we don’t. The government we know was designed for a different era. It has served us well but the world has moved on and, as a result, it is fast becoming a millstone. Conventional government is a drag on the competi- tiveness of our businesses and a threat to the sustainability of our social programs. If we want a prosperous economy and viable social programs, it has to change. This has everything to do with how governments should use and share information.

In today’s world, businesses must com- ply with countless rules and regula- tions. These range from filing sales and payroll taxes to obtaining all kinds of per- mits and licences. Meeting these require- ments is a critical and growing concern for businesses. It can eat up huge amounts of staff time and often requires high levels of expertise that must be contracted from outside the firm.

For example, a well-known study conducted in 2003 by the governments of Canada, Ontario and the Regional Municipality of Halton County found that the simple goal of getting a restau- rant licence required 31 permits. This, in turn, involved visits to a score of gov- ernment offices, involving all three lev- els of government and countless forms. Finally, as if that were not enough, the process had no clear beginning or end. The task of navigating through the process was left to the client.

For years business groups have com- plained about the state of such regulato- ry regimes. It affects their agility, profitability and productivity. This is not just carping. The Halton County study shows how all three levels of govern- ment have been making regulations for decades, often with little or no coordina- tion among them. The result is a tangled web of requirements, many of which are outdated and some of which conflict with one another. As business owners will attest, this case is not an exception. The situation is the same everywhere, from trucking to winemaking.

It is time for governments to clean up the mess. We can’t afford to handicap our businesses this way. Joined-up gov- ernment is the right place to start. It con- nects separate departments and governments so that they can ”” must ”” coordinate their actions. For example, BizPal is an innovative service that pro- vides businesses with on-line access to permit and licence information for all levels of government. Making the three orders of government share the same vir- tual space not only is more convenient for the client; it also forces governments to pay attention to one another and to work together to serve the client better.

But this is only the beginning. As governments get better at provid- ing single-window service, they are increasingly able to tailor their services to the particular needs of the client ”” say, by providing just the right informa- tion on tax issues or international investment opportunities. But to pro- vide customized service, they must have access to all the relevant information on the company they are serving and be able to share it with one another. This, in turn, requires a unique identifier and new rules about how information can be used and shared.

In fact, real progress is being made on at least one of these fronts. The Canada Revenue Agency has recently established the Business Number. It is a single number that is assigned to a busi- ness and provides a consistent and comprehensive way of identifying all of that business’s dealings with the federal government. A num- ber of provinces have now also adopted the Business Number and others are considering it. The Business Number is fast becoming the new basis for stor- ing and managing information. Presumably, it will lead to new agreements on how the infor- mation can be used and shared to improve services to clients.

So our governments have recognized that a unique iden- tifier for businesses is essential for the future. This is an important step forward in changing how governments serve businesses. But what about individuals; do they need a single identifier too? The answer is yes. Such a tool is as critical to the sustain- ability of our social programs as it is to the prosperity of our businesses, as the following case suggests.

In 2000 health care costs claimed 31 percent of total provincial and terri- torial government revenues. By 2020 that figure is expected to rise to 42 per- cent. In the ongoing debate over how to get control over this, everyone agrees on at least one thing: better coordination between services is essen- tial. A recent pilot project, the Alberta Hip and Knee Replacement Project, seems to have broken new ground here and points the way ahead.

The one-year project involved 1,200 hip and knee surgeries and was completed in April 2006. Its goal was to test new ways to deliver services to see if they would reduce wait times. By any standard, the results were remark- able. Wait times to see an orthopedic specialist were slashed from 35 to 6 weeks; the time between the first con- sultation and surgery was reduced from 47 weeks to 4.7 weeks. A few basic changes are behind these impres- sive results.

First, instead of patients being sent to a general practitioner, who would then refer them to a specialist, patients’ first stop was a team of health profes- sionals with the combined expertise to do a full assessment of each patient’s needs. In effect, the team was a one-stop shopping approach to a range of health services. This eliminated wait times between the usual series of referrals.

Second, each patient was assigned a case manager, whose task was to guide the individual through the various stages of the process, ensuring a smooth hand-off from diagnostic test to specialist to surgeon.

Finally, instead of keeping their own lists of patients, doctors ”œpooled” them. This is much the same idea as the single lineup at banks. It allows the next person in line to go to the next available teller. That way no one gets stuck at the end of a long, slow-moving queue.

In the end, the great value of the pilot is the light it shines on the frag- mented and disorganized state of the health care system ”” and the gains that could come from better organization and coordination between different stages in the process. For present purpos- es, it is enough to point out that this will not be possible without better informa- tion and information-sharing practices.

In particular, there must first be an accurate and complete record of the patient’s medical history, including infor- mation from doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists or home care professionals. This corresponds to what is generally known as the ”œelectronic health record.” The information in this record would be registered under a unique identifier.

Second, to ensure that patients get the treatment they need as quick- ly and efficiently as possible, a variety of people will need access to some part of the patient’s file, from the case manager to the team of health spe- cialists. For this we will need new rules for how and when information from such a record can be shared among caregivers.

These cases help us see why it is a mistake to think that joined-up government is only about making gov- ernment services easier to access or more convenient. In an increasingly competitive global market, businesses must remain agile. Governments must provide the right kind of support to them. As for social programs like health care, if we want them to remain of high quality and affordable, they must be better coordinated and inte- grated. All of this takes better informa- tion and better information sharing.

So, whatever name we choose to give it, we need joined-up government. Information needs to flow and govern- ments must be able to share it. Figuring out just how to do this will not be easy; but it should be a key priority of all our governments. Unfortunately, much of the current debate over tools like the national identity card has a head-in- the-sand quality. It treats the renewal of our government machinery as more a matter of preference than a necessity.

But denial will not change the course of history. Just as the Luddites failed to slow ”” let alone stop ”” industrialization, burying our heads in the sand will not stop new technolo- gies from changing how we do things or how our society is organized. Nor will it stop them from challenging some cherished views about privacy. We owe it to ourselves to deal with the issues, directly and honestly.

The deadline we now face on the US border is a wake-up call. We should heed it. One way or another, we are going to get a national identity card. But the card itself is not the real issue. It is largely symbolic, a visual expres- sion of a deeper underlying issue. The real challenge is the unique identifier, the scope of its use and a fundamental rethinking of how governments col- lect, use and share personal informa- tion. If we truly value our personal freedom, we will use the occasion to launch a real discussion on how to balance these concerns in the future. This should be a political debate and it should be led by politicians.

The alternative, of course, is to do nothing ”” that is, to wait until there is another crisis. And sooner or later another crisis will come. When it does, our governments will be catapulted into action ”” or, better, reaction ”” launch- ing a blitz of new security measures to protect the public. But do we really want to be making these choices in a climate of fear, suspicion and demagoguery? I do not think so. If history has a lesson to teach us on this issue, it is that the real threat to privacy lies here. 

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License