Why Good Governance of Digital ID Matters

Digital legal identity is foundational for digital transformation of Member States which leads to the improvement of people’s lives by promoting inclusion in the foundational registry and enhancing access to public and private services. But digitalisation comes with risks of marginalisation, prosecution and exclusion. Good governance helps to mitigate such risk and encourages promotion of human rights.

850 million people worldwide do not have means to prove who they are.

Their existence is often not counted in census of national statistics, and they are left invisible and voiceless. Digitalisation offers more inclusion but it comes with a risk. Better governance of the current and forthcoming digital legal identity system can mitigate the risk and protect the human rights of all.

UNDP supports Member States to reduce the number of people without legal identity by helping them to establish a comprehensive birth to death legal identity system. The model governance framework of Digital Legal ID Framework was developed to ensure that any effort of digitalisation of legal identity comes with robust protection of human rights, personal data and privacy. It was also developed as a strategic offer from UNDP in the field of digital public goods /infrastructure (DPGs and DPI) - to shift the focus of discussion from technology to the governance of technology.

What is ‘digital legal identity’ as referred to in this framework?

A digital legal identity is a physical or digital credential, as well as the enabling process which seeks to ensure that the credential is both recognised and trusted. Digital ID can be ‘foundational’, with multiple applications - such as a birth certificate, passport or national identity card, or it can be intended for more ‘functional’ applications such as accessing more narrowly defined services or entitlements. A digital identity system is thus the combination of technologies, systems and institutions that enable these processes. In this framework, the digital identity system is limited to the legal identity system where the identity is issued by the appropriate government authorities.  

Why is the governance of digital legal identity important for policymakers?

In recent years, there has been an acceleration of digitalisation of public services. In order for a government to provide services via the internet, it was realised that the establishment of digital legal identity is critical. A significant evolution in technology enabled governments to capture personal information, including biometrics, from citizens and it also enabled the government to process this data in an efficient and agile manner. While there is an emphasis on the capability of recent technologies, there were not enough discussions on the appropriate governance framework of such systems.

Many people are concerned about potential human rights violations, the violation of privacy and the unauthorised sharing of personal data. This often creates mistrust and leads to the failure of digital legal ID projects. Therefore, it is critical to have robust and independent oversight, and governance structures for digital legal identity for people to protect their rights and for governments to ensure successful digital ID projects.

This model governance framework is not a ‘checklist’ that judges if a country has a ‘good’ governance system or not. Indeed, the national digital legal identity system varies from country to country and each system is affected by its history, legacy technology and culture. This model governance framework poses a set of important questions that policymakers, CSOs, and people can ask to understand how the governance of digital legal identity can be improved in each setting. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 included as Target 16.9 the provision of “legal identity for all, including birth registration”. This target recognised that access to legal ID can have a catalytic impact on achieving many of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), In fact, 12 of the 17 SDGs require civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) data for measuring their indicators, and a total of 67 out of 230 SDG indicators require data from a CRVS system.

SDGs and status of legal ID today

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 included as Target 16.9 the provision of “legal identity for all, including birth registration”. This target recognized that access to legal ID can have a catalytic impact on achieving many of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), In fact, 12 of the 17 SDGs require civil registration and vital statistics data (CRVS) data for measuring their indicators, and a total of 67 out of 230 SDG indicators require data from the CRVS system.

Birth Registration

Only 73% of countries, territories and areas register at least 90% of births. 166 million children under 5 years old whose births were never registered and 237 million children without a birth certificate.

Death Registration

Only 15% of the world’s population lives in countries where more than 90% of births and deaths are registered, and evidence suggests that women’s deaths are less likely to be registered than men’s. Only 68% of countries, territories and areas register at least 90% of deaths which have occurred.

Marriage and Divorce Registration

Among vital events, marriage and divorce registration are the most unreliable and it has a catastrophic impact on the lives of women and girls. Adding to the birth certificate, marriage registration will precent child marriage. While child marriage is declining, its prevalence is still shockingly high—one in five women aged 20–24 were married when they were children. If more is not done, by 2030 around 150 million girls will marry before their eighteenth birthday (UNICEF).

National ID

Over 130 UN Member States have introduced various forms of national population registers /national identity card schemes.The gender gap in ID ownership is large.

For example, 35% of women living in low income countries still do not have an ID, compared with 27% of men, a gap of 8%.

Refugees and asylum-seekers, IDPs, Stateless persons

In half of all countries worldwide, only 50% of IDPs, 13% of refugees and asylum seekers, and 21% of stateless persons have legally recognised documents or credentials. (UNHCR 2022)

Identity, governance and digital public infrastructure (DPI)

What is DPI? At its core, DPI is an approach to accelerating inclusive country-wide digital transformation. Successful DPI combines the right technological architecture with governance frameworks and robust public and private market innovation, providing countries with agency over their own digital journeys. From digital cash transfers to e-health, effective DPI cuts through the siloed approach of designing and implementing digital solutions to transform governance service delivery, private innovation and boost resilience.

An effective digital ID governance framework is central to achieving DPI's vision, ensuring that digital transformations are rooted in trusted legal identities that can empower people with rights across all government services where people must verify their identity and prove their eligibility to access these services. As countries transition to broader digital infrastructures, from e-health to digital cash transfers, a robust, trusted, digital ID system becomes indispensable. It accelerates a country’s digital transformation journey by replacing multiple functional identity registries with a single trusted registry thereby reinforcing the aim of a DPI to move beyond isolated solutions towards interoperable, society-wide programs.

Establishing an effective, an efficient link between ID and DPI requires the following:

An Ecosystem of innovative market players and semi-public entities; e.g., solution providers, start ups, universities, local and international partners,

Governance of legal and institutional framework; policy; ensuring access to services and rights; procurement; transparency and accountability,

Core technology foundations which underpin legal digital ID solutions; e.g., registries, IDs, credentialing, eKYC, public private key infra, etc.

With good governance in place, digital ID can catalyse innovation among an ecosystem of actors, building on reusable, interoperable, technology foundations to accelerate the pace in which a government can deliver e-services and give new opportunities for private sector businesses to reach people. Learn more about UNDPs work on DPI here, and DPI as a concept here.


Legal Identity

Legal identity is defined as the basic characteristics of an individual's identity. e.g., name, sex, place and date of birth conferred through registration and the issuance of a certificate by an authorised civil registration authority following the occurrence of birth. In the absence of birth registration, legal identity may be conferred by a legally-recognised identification authority. This system should be linked to the civil registration system to ensure a holistic approach to legal identity from birth to death. Legal identity is retired by the issuance of a death certificate by the civil registration authority upon registration of death.

In the case of refugees, Member States are primarily responsible for issuing proof of legal identity. The issuance of proof of legal identity to refugees may also be administered by an internationally recognised and mandated authority.

Proof of legal identity

Proof of legal identity is defined as a credential, such as birth certificate, identity card or digital identity credential that is recognised as proof of legal identity under national law and in accordance with emerging international norms and principles.

Identity Management

While there is no internationally agreed definition of identity management, the term refers to the issuance of a proof or legal identity to each individual by a government authorised entity and the maintenance of systems for managing information and documents associated with such an identity.

Civil Registration

Civil registration is defined as the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording of the occurrence and characteristics of vital events pertaining to the population, as provided through decree or regulation in accordance with the legal requirement in each country. Civil registration is carried out primarily for the purpose of establishing the documents provided by the law.

Population Register

A population register is defined as “an individualized data system, that is, a mechanism of continuous recording, or of coordinated linkage, of selected information pertaining to each member of the resident population of a country in such a way as to provide the possibility of determining up-to-date information concerning the size and characteristics of that population at selected time intervals” (DESA). The population register is the product of a continuous process, in which notifications of certain events, which may have been recorded originally in different administrative systems, are automatically linked on a current basis. A method and process for updating the characteristics of individuals should be defined, along with identifying sources where such information can be obtained, so that the characteristics of individuals in the register remains current. Due to the nature of a population register, its organisation and its operation, it must have a legal basis.

Vital Statistics

Vital statistics constitute the collection of statistics on vital events in a lifetime of a person as well as relevant characteristics of the events themselves and of the person and persons concerned. Vital statistics provide crucial and critical information on the population in a country.


UNLIA TF has produced a lot of guidance on how to better manage the whole legal identity ecosystem. They can all be found from the UNLIA  website but one of the normative documents that has comprehensive coverage from CRVS and ID management is ‘Handbook on Civil Registration, Vital Statistics and Identity Management Systems: Communication for Development’. UNLIA TF also has guidelines on the specific themes such as ‘Guidelines on the Legislative Framework for Civil Registration, Vital Statistics and Identity Management’ and ‘Drafting Data Protection Legislation: A Study of Regional Frameworks’.

The World Bank in its World Development Report (2016) argued for digital identification systems to achieve legal ID for all and established an initiative on “identification for development” (ID4D) in 2014 to bring together global knowledge and expertise to help realise the potential of digital identity systems towards achieving SDGs. The ID4D Initiative led the process of developing Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development, which include “governance” as one out of the three headings of the ten principles.

The ID4D initiative has also published extensive tools for use in the development of digital identification systems, including a Diagnostic Tool to evaluate a country’s identity ecosystem with the objective of setting up a new identity system or evaluating an existing one, and the ID Enabling Environment Assessment (IDEEA) tool to evaluate a country’s data protection and privacy regulatory frameworks in the context of their ID systems. The IDEEA Guidance Note has a section on Governance that focuses on data protection and responsibilities of the institutions involved, along with an Annexure section on “Governance, Social, and Cultural Factors”.