Discussing the OpenCRVS open-source civil registration system (ep. 3)

August 4, 2022

We’re going in big with our first look at technology, an entire digital civil registration and vital statistics system called OpenCRVS.

Technology cannot fix the problem of a billion people not having legal identity. Not on its own.

OpenCRVS is an open-source civil registration system that can be configured for a country in a week. Annina Wersun, its head of Community Development and Engagement, explains the daily issues getting in the way of birth registration and how the system can be used by a country to experiment and improve the way it presents birth registration.

“Technology projects fail the majority of the time because of the people,” says Wersun as she explains how OpenCRVS is just a tool for tackling UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 for legal identity for all.

04:15 Annina Wersun, OpenCRVS https://www.opencrvs.org

05:10 Nigeria example – mother not informed of birth registration, cost of reaching registration centers

06:39 Registrars have multiple roles

08:33 Technology is not a silver bullet – it only enables effective service delivery

08:56 Universal birth registration will happen through process improvement and service design

09:18 Demand for birth registration is low – lack of a birth certificate does NOT block people from health access

09:42 OpenCRVS trying to enable more active registration, going to the births

10:25 Birth is a human moment, celebration. Not bureaucracy.

11:05 Community health workers in Bangladesh went to new parents’ houses to register the birth

13:35 Engagement with parents begins before the birth

15:22 Community health workers are inundated with requests for local services

16:20 OpenCRVS can be configured for a country in one week

17:40 System updates can be pushed out to countries from OpenCRVS

18:26 Recommend taking a digital transformation approach to the whole process of civil registry

19:30 Legal sandboxes for experimenting with new rules

20:53 Start small on digital transformation programs

21:31 Use OpenCRVS as testing tool, whether or not you use it for civil registry

22:40 Trying to create new standards for digital civil registration, prevent system vendors from offering non-tailored products

23:45 Built on open standards for interoperability

24:38 Working with MOSIP

26:05 “Technology projects fail the majority of the time because of the people” – how to implement change

27:57 Birth registration at a health facility

28:45 The complexity of issuing a certificate

30:00 Office environment – think about whether there are enough chairs, is it signposted

31:24 Shift in understanding about civil registration as foundational ID, in part thanks to World Bank activity

31:37 Making services easy is better than behavior change campaigns

32:45 SDG 16.9 good as a reminder we are way off achieving universal registration. Under age 1 rather than 5 would be a better target

33:24 Technology can help towards SDG 16.9, but along with other changes such as reducing fields on birth registration forms

36:02 Allow data to show where a system is struggling, where to direct resources, empower staff

Find out more about the podcast and the importance of legal identity at https://id169.com

Produced and hosted by Frank Hersey at Biometric Update.

FRANK HERSEY: Welcome to episode three of ID16.9, a podcast devoted to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 for a legal identity for all by 2030.

We try to get the bottom of why a billion people, and if it really is a billion people, have no formal way of proving who they are and how this affects their lives. I’m your host and producer, Frank Hersey, a reporter at Biometric Update, the team behind this podcast.

This is the place to discuss the ideas, issues and sometimes even progress towards this goal. It’s time to turn to technology and its role in legal identity.

For many of us, legal identity means our birth certificates. Everything else like driving licenses and passports are something that have followed on from having a birth certificate. This means birth certificates themselves can seem somewhat irrelevant. Even old fashioned. Yours might even be hand written.

When did you last use it? Do you even know where it is or how complete it is? I was talking to a British friend last night, born in England to a German mother, she recently applied for a German passport in this post Brexit, brave new world. Her application was rejected. It turns out that the British civil registry offered a cheaper short-form birth certificate when my friend was born in the mid-80s. German authorities declined this document as it weirdly didn’t include her parents’ names. Now in her 30s, she’s had to apply for a new birth certificate, and she got the passport.

As we’ve been hearing in previous episodes, birth certificates and the civil registration bureaucracy that issues them are vitally important, especially when that credential is the only one you receive. By providing a legal identity, they can let the holders enroll at school, such as in Kenya, or get healthcare, find formal employment, marry, travel, own property and even inherit.

Birth certificates are so fundamental that they are seen as a human right. Yet in many countries, registration and certification rates are extremely low. I just want to flag that difference between birth registration and birth certification. Birth registration is a civil registry recording that there’s a new human in the country. It’s for the authorities’ benefit to keep tabs, but it’s also the first step to birth certification where the parents or guardians receive some form of document.

So can technology help? We’re going to look at various technological approaches to improving registration rates and issuing more robust and secure credentials, all with the hope of getting us to that Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 legal identity for all by 2030, including birth registration.

NIALL MCCANN: So that’s why the UN, we’re constantly advising countries, please, you have to link the birth registration system with any form of adult digital ID or national ID scheme.

FRANK HERSEY: That’s the UNDP’s Niall McCann on the issue of civil registry and legal identity in episode two. He also said…

NIALL MCCANN: We would certainly think that new digital technologies have a very, very important role to play here and that can significantly help to increase the overall levels of birth registration.

FRANK HERSEY:We also heard from UNICEF’s Cornelius Williams.

CORNELIUS WILLIAMS: In Africa, we will not be able to meet the targets for the SDG so we do need a disruptive process.

FRANK HERSEY: So let’s hear about a tech solution that can be set up in just one week to provide a digital civil registry. It’s not just about tech, though. It only works as part of a balanced diet. Will it be enough of a disruptive process?

And just to note that in this episode, when our guest says “RFP” that’s “request for proposals” – a government saying it’s looking for help on a certain project.

We’re going in big with our first look at technology, entire digital civil registration and vital statistics system called OpenCRVS. Joining me to talk about it is Annina Wersun who heads up community development and engagement at OpenCRVS. Hello Annina and welcome to the show.

ANNINA WERSUN: Hi Frank. Thanks very much for having me. Delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you today.

FRANK HERSEY: Well, there’s plenty to talk about to see what impact technology might have on reaching the goal of legal identity for all, including birth registration. So how about we start with the background of the problem you’re trying to solve.

ANNINA WERSUN: Yeah, let me let me paint you a little picture. I mean, the first thing to kind of mention is obviously every country is different. You know, you have different geographies, you have different social cultural environments, you have different priorities from people. But in reality the experience of people trying to access birth registration services in the majority of countries with low registration rates is the same. And as we’ll come onto later on, this is kind of one of the hypotheses and why OpenCRVS, this open source digital solution for civil registration, we believe is a really good solution because there’s a lot of common problems.

So so let’s paint a picture. Imagine you are, you know, a mother, Frank, you know, giving birth to your child in rural Nigeria. Now the the birth registration rate in health facilities in Nigeria is super low. I think it’s in the in kind of mid-30s percentage. And so you’re giving to your giving birth to your child at the community level. And the first barrier is the traditional birth attendant or community health worker who’s working with, may not even inform you of birth registration. You may well not have a birth certificate. So you have absolutely no idea of the need. So immediately there’s a challenge. Now if you are lucky enough to be near or have access to maternal and child health services that does tell you about birth registration, the next challenge is getting to that registration center.

Now, the availability of these centers is often very sparse. So you have to travel large distances to be able to access those centers. If you’re living in rural Nigeria, that might be a few hours, it might be a whole day, and you might have to get on a motorbike, you might get in a taxi, you might even have to walk. Whatever happens and whatever mode of transport you can take, there’s a cost associated with that. So immediately if you’re thinking about people with low incomes immediately you’re having to make a choice about how you’re spending your money. And is this the right decision to make?

If they make that decision, yes, I want to go register the birth of my child. I go to the office. Now you turn up at the office, hopefully the registrar’s in. Often people will turn up at the office and the registrar isn’t in. So another challenge, and the reason for that being registrars often have other roles and responsibilities. A good example of this is they might be organizing local market days and they might be managing community disputes and birth registration may just not be one of their top priorities. If that’s the case you’re asked to come back the next day. So you have to consider do I go home and travel all that way back? Do I have to spend the night? Again, another cost.

Imagine you finally are faced with the registrar and they start asking all the questions to complete the birth registration form. You’re completing the form and then you’re asked to provide a supporting document. You didn’t know you need the supporting document and they say sorry you can’t get registered today and so on.

So the registration process itself might take two, three, or four visits and by the time you come back to collect your certificate, which rarely happens in that first visit, or any of the subsequent visits, you then might be faced with the fact that the name of your child is incorrectly spelled on that birth certificate and that might require a correction that needs to go to to another level above the office in which you’re operating.

So I don’t know about you, Frank, but I’m tired just describing this and this is the reality of millions of people around the world trying to just do the simple thing of getting a legal identity for their child.

FRANK HERSEY: So how would OpenCRVS tackle any of those things? I mean listening to that there’s the understanding of whether or not to do it at all, that could be the biggest problem out of all of them. But then there’s the time, the money, the perseverance required and then dealing with any problems thrown up just by starting the process itself. So I was wondering in terms of a technology, technological solution coming in, how how would it work? How if I was in that same location in rural Nigeria, what might an experience be otherwise?

ANNINA WERSUN: Yeah, great question. And before I get to the technology I’ll just make a massive caveat about the technology and you know we are, we are technologists but before that we are here really to to serve these people and we’re here to solve the problems that I just described. And so technology is not a silver bullet. You know, technology is there to enable effective service delivery. And I say that because really the essence of increasing accessibility, improving service delivery to achieve universal birth registration comes about, we think, through process improvement and improved service design.

From a human perspective, we need to think about well how do we make this easy. One of the other challenges when it comes to birth registration is there’s very little demand for it. And the reason for that is, well, we can talk to the benefits of birth registration, the reality of people on the ground is you know, a birth certificate doesn’t prevent them from accessing health services. It might prevent them from accessing school but not in every country. And that’s only at the age of five. So it’s not, you know, encouraging registration immediately after birth, which is really when it’s most valuable

What we’re trying to do with OpenCRVS is enable more active service delivery. So what that looks like is taking services to the community, taking services to where births occur. So that might be at the community level through a network of trusted agents who are armed with either a mobile device or tablet depending where they are. In Bangladesh the government issued tablets to community health workers. Um you know, we’ve worked in other countries where you know we explore using their own device because the cost of obviously implementing a system and giving everyone a device and managing those devices is massive. So we have to be practical in this but using that device, taking it to people and offering the service where the birth occurs.

Also when we’re considering designing services for birth registration, we’ve got to remember these are human moments, right? You know, birth occurs and everyone is celebrating. It’s a joy. It’s not necessarily the first priority is I want to go and do some paperwork, right?

But mothers and fathers, you know, wherever we work around the world, there’s a consistency in that people want the best for their children and after birth people go to certain places and engage with certain people. So we really focus on, you know, understanding these interactions that people have after the birth of a child, considering who are these people, can we trust them, what role could they play in the birth registration process?

So an example being in Bangladesh, we tested using OpenCRVS with community health workers because they go and provide maternal and child health services at the community door to door. And so they would go around and they would sit in the mother and father’s home, you know, and complete the form there and take pictures of supporting documents. If they didn’t have those supporting documents they could come back and then they would send that application for review at the registration office. So there was no need to travel to the registration office to submit that application form.

At the registration office, then a registrar can see a queue of all those applications have been submitted from the community level, they can review the content, they can see it side by side with the supporting document and then they can either validate it, register it or they can send it back and ask for further information.

Another really important aspect of this is being able to communicate with these customers. So, you know, at the moment, OpenCRVS enables SMS messages to tell them about the status of the application and in the future for different environments, we can explore integration with WhatsApp or IVR or email. Again, every country in every context we need to consider, how do people communicate?

Interestingly, one of the things we learned in Bangladesh was that they received so many junk SMSs is that this SMS function actually wasn’t great for people in Bangladesh. They never received that message. So how do we communicate with people to ensure that they know and then they follow up and go and collect the certificate when it’s ready so they’re not going for those multiple visits, they do come on one occasion and they had to in Bangladesh, but it’s these kinds of services that we think are really important and these are the types of services that OpenCRVS enables. Again, it’s all about the service design.

FRANK HERSEY: I was wondering whether any of this starts before the birth, whether there’s any sort of relationship being formed before birth, whether if it’s a community health worker, they would maybe already know the mothers, if there’s any antenatal care happening and whether at that stage they’re possibly already engaging with parents to try and make sure they’ve got the documents they need, whether parents themselves need an ID to register the child’s birth. Is there any process like that happening anywhere?

ANNINA WERSUN: Absolutely. So again, you know, when we conduct, kind of, business process analysis and then subsequent business process improvement and service design, we look way before the birth occurs. So you’re spot on there, Frank. And we’re looking for, again, who do mothers and fathers engage with in the months, you know, from pregnancy all the way through to giving birth and beyond.

Yes they often are health professionals, if women are receiving antenatal care you know the messages that they’re being provided about how to look after themselves, they should also be informed of the birth registration process. Obviously the more people are told about it, the more people recognize it, they understand it, they can understand the benefits associated with it. And again, absolutely. If a country requires a supporting document that that individual doesn’t have, whether we like the rules and regulations or not, they can be informed at an earlier point and also told that process.

There’s also potential benefit in providing integrated services, so exploring obviously the provision of civil registration and ID services together that can overcome some of these barriers as well.

FRANK HERSEY: If we take an example for staying in Nigeria, Nigeria is always a little daunting.. if we carry on with that as an example, the state or the country wanted to go ahead with OpenCRVS for doing birth registrations and possibly they might get parents registering as well, so we get some bonus registrations, but just looking at the birth registrations, really, how easy would it be to implement OpenCRVS in terms of centrally and then linking devices and what sort of training would registrars or health care community health care workers need?

ANNINA WERSUN: Yeah, great questions. So before I go on to OpenCRVS implementation, just a small point on obviously the actors. Now I mentioned community health workers, I also want to caveat that with the fact that community health workers get a lot of requests. So we did use them in Bangladesh but our learning was that their role had to be limited because they have so many requests on their times. When we’re looking for actors we also need to be realistic about what their other roles and responsibilities are. Often we would see community health workers saying sorry we’re doing a vaccination drive, we can’t do birth registration this month. So you know, thinking those kinds of points through when you’re looking at the actors responsible is really important.

In Nigeria, they’ve actually taken steps already which is really positive towards active registration so their registrars actually go into the community and so they’re they’re playing that role so great example in Nigeria.

So in terms of OpenCRVS implementation, we’ve got a new release coming out in mid-June, really exciting, release one of OpenCRVS and that release, the biggest thing to know about this release is that it’s really focused on improving the configurability of the product. What that means is within one week, once a country’s got their infrastructure sorted, within one week, you can configure the product for use in a country. So in Nigeria it would take one week. You need to gather the forms, you need to collect your reference data, you need to have all your kind of population data to make sure that the performance management function works. But within one week you can get that all working. And what we recommend is to very quickly get OpenCRVS into the hands of users and start getting their feedback.

OpenCRVS has a bunch of different features and functionality, a lot of which will respond to the common requirements of birth registration and it does in Nigeria. Get it into the hands of users, see what they like, see what they don’t like. You know, is the label on a button unclear? Can we change that to make it more useful for users? You know, this is the granularity of this kind of iterative agile development. And start really small, small scale, you know, you’re going to one office, you’re getting a handful of registrars, you’re putting it in their hands and you’re asking them to play with it.

That’s kind of that’s the process of just configuring it. And then you’ll start to identify obviously additional requirements perhaps. And you can you can further develop OpenCRVS as well. Now because OpenCRVS is a global product, our organization, OpenCRVS, manages and maintains this core product. So any new features and functionality that you want to build on top of that, we highly recommend to do it in such a way that it can be used by the core product. So in line with the development standards, which, you know, we hold ourselves to a really high account to make sure that it works in any country around the world, to develop that in such a way that it can be incorporated into the core product and then made available globally.

Now the time that it takes to do this further development completely depends on Nigeria’s additional requirements, right? They might say this is all we need for now. This is brilliant. At a later point in six months, they say we want to do some further development.

But again, in terms of making an OpenCRVS implementation successful, this is a really small component. And we really highly recommend, you know, taking a digital transformation approach to the implementation of OpenCRVS. And what we mean by that is thinking about the business processes, the culture and the customer experience, a really holistic approach to transforming civil registration systems across the country. And all of this has to start with the business objectives and these business objectives, they’re not digitization, that’s not a business objective. Right? These business objectives are we want to improve accessibility to civil registration systems, we want to increase demand. We want to build a trusted source for foundational identity and then based on that, you define a program about how you’re going to achieve that. Technology is just just one aspect of it.

Process improvement is a massive aspect of this. Take into account human needs, the context, where people go after birth and designing services that can be enabled by the technology, the legal and regulatory environment. You know, often the barriers exist so you’re never going to achieve universal registration if you don’t remove those barriers.

Now it takes a really long time to change rules and regulations in the country. So we’re exploring also now the use of legal sandboxes and what I mean by that is this is kind of, it came up in the fintech industry because the technology was far outpacing the ability of laws to keep up. And it basically is a time bound controlled environment saying you can operate out with the rules and regulations to prove whether something works or not. And then we’ll make the change in rules and regulations. This would be perfect for civil registration because if we just adhere to existing rules and regulations, which we need to do, we will not make the gains required to achieve universal registration.

FRANK HERSEY: And I suppose it might work even just apart from technology. So if there was a regulatory sandbox where in this state of the country we’re going to suspend the need for both parents to have their own ID. That in itself, I suppose, could drive birth registrations without any technology. I suppose there’s lots of different ways of looking at a regulatory sandbox.

ANNINA WERSUN: Absolutely. And actually, we’d really highly encourage, even before the technology is ready and while you’re configuring OpenCRVS and while, you know, and further developing it or whatever digital civil registration solution solution you’re using, absolutely, test these out in manual ways and absolutely, as you just suggested, try testing out different things in different places and comparing them.

When you go about defining digital transformation program, you gotta start small. If you go big bang, you can have all the big problems and the little problems at the same time. So starting small experimenting with these service delivery models, enabling it with the technology, it’s a great thing with OpenCRVS, as you can configure it quickly, you get into the hands of users and you can test this before you make any big investments and big choices, and learn and learn and iterate and capture those learnings and share them. Hear about other learning, compare A/B testing with different locations. You can learn a massive amount within this kind of experimental approach to testing out different service delivery models

Whether a country chooses to implement OpenCRVS or not, we would also encourage countries and development partners supporting countries who are making these decisions to use OpenCRVS as a testing tool. You know, if you want to procure your own digital civil registration solution and you you don’t want to go with OpenCRVS, no problem. But why don’t you do it by developing requirements through learning, through this iterative process through understanding the services that you need to be enabled.

FRANK HERSEY: So it can, it can operate as a freestanding system. A country can use OpenCRVS or it can use it as a sort of way to get their house in order if they’ve got their eye on a product from another provider.

ANNINA WERSUN: Absolutely. And one of the other things that we’re going to be providing is, you know, materials. All our documentation that goes into detail about the functionality of OpenCRVS can also be used to inform fairly robust RFP for a country to be able to, you know, to advertise to select a solution. We’re really not only developing, you know, this digital product that’s freely available. What I mean by that is no license costs, there are implementation costs. But we’re also trying to create a new standard for digital civil registration systems so that vendors don’t have the opportunity to just see this list of requirements, build it and not factor in the really specific needs of low resource settings.

And and some of those things for instance, you know, working online and offline, you know, really, really important, but also low connectivity. Right. The worst is not when you don’t have any signal at all, it’s when you see that spinning wheel of death for 20 minutes and the customer’s sitting there, you know, so how do you make that experience good for people where they do have signal, but it’s just not that good. So there’s all sorts of kind of considerations based on the experiences and a whole bunch of countries that we’ve worked in over the past, you know, 8-10 years that have come in to inform the design of this product, to really respond to user needs.

FRANK HERSEY: And then in terms of your own programming, for OpenCRVS, do you have it set up so that it is compatible with another system such as MOSIP? Could you be a module within MOSIP for example?

ANNINA WERSUN: Yes. So we have built OpenCRVS using open standards and we use a health information architecture specifically to enable data sharing. So we’ve used the HL7 FHIR standard which is a common standard for health systems and we’ve adjusted that for civil registration purposes because there is no need to create something new right? There’s so much out there already and that’s a really important principle. You know we do really take the principles for digital development seriously because they’re super useful and re-use is one of them. Standards is another. So being able to really easily work with other systems is critical to the success of OpenCRVS because like we talked about OpenCRVS is a foundational identity system. So the value of that only really comes to fruition when we integrate with these functional registers and and obviously other national ID systems.

Specifically MOSIP, we’ve already been doing some work with them to prove some use cases and we continue to work with them. So already we’ve done the work to you know a birth is registered in OpenCRVS, we inform MOSIP of that birth event and they send back a unique unique identification number and that’s the power obviously of foundational identity. That’s ensuring participation of this individual from birth in society. That’s where it gets really exciting.

FRANK HERSEY: Let’s say a country is looking at different options for its CRVS, maybe how it’s going to integrate it with another identity platform and maybe they’re doing different types of A/B testing, different states, in that period of testing are they also doing a traditional birth registration at the same time? Because maybe they will try one particular method in a state which they don’t continue with anymore. I was just wondering whether they have to, you know, we’re still dealing with human lives, you know, it’s a very important process in everyone’s lives. So just wondering whether there’s a sort of parallel registration and then an experimental one on top.

ANNINA WERSUN: Yeah, great question. And these things need to be done incredibly carefully. So thank you for bringing this up and you’re spot on. You know, everything needs to be done in a controlled way and as part of any kind of, you know, digital intervention smaller at scale, I want to mention the importance of change management.

Technology projects fail the majority of the time because of people. You know, and so in the countries in which we work in — be it Nigeria, be it Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, anywhere we are um you know, we’re working with people, especially the community level who don’t have a massive amount of experience using technologies. Technologies or new services. Right? I need to caveat that to your point and we need to maintain like you said, clear communications with them. Before you go and you start the project, introduce the change. What is it? how is it going to affect them and how is it going to benefit them? You know, a change management program can be super complex, but if you just communicate, you know, those things, you think about these people, what motivates them, you know, what matters to them, how can you communicate with them in a way that they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, can use super simple language, simpler is better, whether you’re in a financial institution in New York or whether you’re in a community health facility in Nigeria, it doesn’t matter. Keep it simple, let them know what’s going on. And yes, these parallel processes need to be managed really carefully.

FRANK HERSEY: So I suppose a lot of the progress might come from word of mouth from parents who have been through the process. I was just wondering what might it be like for the parent in the community where it’s been decided who the actors are, who are the people with a mobile device, some sort of tablet. The baby is born and then does the person come and visit them at home? I was wondering, do we even get a paper certificate or do we get something different?

ANNINA WERSUN: Yeah, absolutely. So if we take the example of community birth registration, and this is just one model, I’ll give you a couple, birth registration and health facility. So at the community level, you know, someone ,the birth occurs and these actors are operating at the community level and they’ve been chosen because they know when births occur. So they will within the legally stipulated period of time, and this is really important trying to register the event as soon after it’s happened as possible, they will capture the information, they will go through the process and the issuance of the certificate will happen usually at the office but that can be distributed back to the community level depending on the service that has been designed. So in an ideal scenario, the community registrar would complete the process at the community level, it might get registered at the office, printed at the office, signed and then delivered back to the community.

But what we’ve got to remember is if that’s the model, there’s a complexity that we’re adding in terms of the issuance of that certificate. Sometimes that complexity isn’t worth implementing because people aren’t doing it. People run out of money because they can’t transport the certificates back to individuals. So these are the really practical logistical questions we need to ask ourselves when we’re designing processes.

Usually countries will require the parent to visit or parent, informant, caregiver, to visit the office once, that’s very common, and we think that’s okay from a service delivery experience and customer experience, to visit the office once and to know that you’re gonna go get your certificate on that visit. That’s really important. And yes, it is a is a printed certificate.

Now the certificate in OpenCRVS is the certificate that the government chooses it to be. So in the configuration panel now you can upload an SVG file that becomes the certificate and then it’s printed on whatever paper that the government wants to print it on. Um, so that’s another thing that we’ve, you know, we’ve done because we know that the government has a specific standard of certificate.

You know, OpenCRVS also enables simple process just at the office level. Right, someone can come in, they can complete the process, they can print the certificate immediately or they can come and collect it at a later point. If someone does come to the office, you know, from a service delivery perspective, we always encourage people to think about the environment of the office, right? You know, not just the technology. Are there seats for people to sit down, you know, have they been told as their sign posting of where the offices and so and so and so forth. But yes, the certificate is printed and issued.

We’re also exploring the opportunity of a digital birth certificate. Um, it’s not currently feature in the product but we would, you know, it is planned for later releases and we’d love to explore that with partners. And obviously test it out in a reference implementation.

FRANK HERSEY: So do you ever step back from the whole situation and think which is the bigger problem? Is it persuading individuals or is it persuading governments to implement these systems?

ANNINA WERSUN: Great question. I think there’s been a lot of progress and and you know, ID4D at the World Bank have done an absolutely brilliant job about communicating the value of civil registration as a foundational identity system, feeding into, you know, population registers and national identity systems. A lot of their funding now into kind of national ID programs includes civil registration as that foundational ID, so I do think there is a shift in understanding from government and obviously this funding really helps. It’s a little bit of a chicken or egg, you know, do people need to know about birth registration? Absolutely. Um, but we would probably argue that making services easy and a no-brainer is a far better strategy than pumping money into kind of a behavioral change campaign where people don’t actually necessarily realize that benefit until later on in life.

But increasingly, as civil registration and ID systems are more seamless and this unique identification number from birth is provided, that might also change. You know, both are really important. I’d probably say the government understanding and investment is probably slightly more important now and designing services that take, that are taken to people where they happen and just understanding people a little bit more, um, you know, and recognizing these special moments in their life.

FRANK HERSEY: Well it sounds like there’s lots of potential, lots of opportunities, things to explore there, and the sense that persuading people birth registration is useful for the rest of life. It’s not just a government statistic, it’s for us. And I think these are some of the thoughts behind the whole legal identity movement. So just wondering looking at the SDG 16.9, how helpful do you think that is as a goal?

ANNINA WERSUN: I think it’s really helpful as a goal. I think it’s helpful as a goal because it’s a really good reminder that we are way off achieving universal registration. You know, I’ll caveat that in terms of, you know, the specific target we believe is better fitted to be at least under one rather than under five, which is the current defined target. But there’s lots of discussion around that and I think you know more and more people are understanding the value of that. We encourage even more so registration within the legally stipulated times or whatever a country says. To achieve SDG 16.9 in 7.5 years, things need to change and technology is a really wonderful way in which that can facilitate that change.

But before that change happens we need to be looking at testing different things out. Like I said, you know, experimenting. We need to be thinking about different service delivery models. We need to be thinking about reducing the number of of fields on birth registration forms. You know, the statistical data is is wonderful and really, really important. But governments need to decide what’s more important. Is achieving universal registration more important or is it having better data quality important? You know, whatever people say about Aadhaar, they registered everyone across India in a very short period of time because they asked for five data points and those five data points were accessible to absolutely every individual.

And so they removed the barriers. We’re not necessarily suggesting that for birth registration, but maybe we should test it somewhere. Does it make a difference, you know? But we have to make changes. We can’t keep saying, but the rules don’t allow that. We can’t keep saying, oh no, but your national ID is mandatory when half the population doesn’t have it. You know, we can’t keep doing the same things that we’ve been doing for the last 20 years.

There’s so much learning that we can take from all the efforts of all the development partners and all the governments around the world. But I think we also need to recognize what we already know. A lot of these things are really hard and it operates in political systems that require us to do things in a certain way, but there’s probably a lot we can do if we challenge ourselves and remove some of those orthodoxies, some of those things, you know, we’ve always done it this way. It’s not working, let’s try something different.

FRANK HERSEY: So how big a role could OpenCRVS play in getting to goal 16.9?

ANNINA WERSUN: You know, like I said before, technology is not a silver bullet. But what it does allow us to do and we think is really exciting is allow countries to test different things out. Instead of, you know, writing the RFP, procuring the system, waiting three years for it to be ready, recognizing that it doesn’t work, then being locked into, you know, this vendor situation and not having the money to to further develop the system. And that’s what we see, you know, in so many countries. Configure OpenCRVS in a week, get into the hands of users, test out different service delivery models, see what works, learn from it and then, you know, iterate and then plan for scale. And if you want to go procure another digital system, sure. That’s the magic we believe of OpenCRVS.

And give us the data right? You know, allow someone sitting in their in their office to see which office isn’t doing well and giving them picking up the phone, giving them a call and saying what’s going on there because 99% of the time the guys working on the ground, you know. I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of registration staff over the years. They can tell you what needs to be done they’re just, you know, they’re not getting the budget, they’re not getting the money. I know I need to be at the vaccination site, but I don’t have money to get the motorbike to get there, or, we’ve run out of ink cartridges again, or, you know, we don’t have the paper required for certificates. Okay, well when you understand these problems, you can start to resolve them, but you know, if you, if you make that data available, if you put in performance management mechanisms that allow civil registration staff to actually manage the operational performance of these systems, there’s a massive amount you can do and it doesn’t need to be complicated, it can be super simple and there’s a lot of passionate registrars out, there’s a lot of passionate health staff, people care about their children, you know, they want the best for their children. All of this is opportunity that we need to harness in the right way and kind of bring alive and and we can enable that through OpenCRVS.

FRANK HERSEY: Well, I don’t see how anybody can argue with any of that. I think for one of the first times I feel a bit of optimism towards reaching this goal, um, obviously it’s a large goal and 2030 is getting closer with every episode that we record but thank you so much Annina for spending that time going through all those points and I hope that we can catch up again in future to hear about the progress of OpenCRVS and how it’s going in different countries, what people are doing in different countries, are they doing the testing? Are they trying the sandboxes? More and more experiences I’m sure will will come back to you and it’d be great to hear about them again in the future.

ANNINA WERSUN: We’d love that. Thanks so much for your time.

FRANK HERSEY: That brings us to the end of our introductory episodes. We’ve looked at what legal identity is, chances of reaching the goal, the role of civil registry and how technology, if correctly handled, can help towards SDG 16.9. Do stay with us and for more details of issues discussed check the show notes or our site ID169.com.

Coming up next, we’re going to hear from people affected by identity issues around the world. How individual countries are tackling their registration rates plus the role of biometrics, digital identity, and how all these things can be open to abuse.