NATIONAL ID: Smart idea born over 20 years ago
by Asina Pornwasin
Mission to make registration easy led to new card The man behind the ?smart card?, the national ID that will allow easier access to government services both online and off-line, first began to realise his life’s mission more than two decades ago.
Now, with Thailand among the first countries in the world to compel all its citizens to acquire such a card, Surachai Srisaracam said he marvels at how a task he initiated has expanded into one involving a workforce of 20,000.
Surachai now heads one of the largest national schemes “Project Population Registration” and it is entering a crucial phase. Once the Cabinet approves the card’s final design, each citizen will be given a new ID card with a smart chip that will contain information about him or her. But human rights and privacy issues, which have hounded the project’s progress, are sure to resurface.
Misuse or abuse of personal information, or possible input of such information as job changes or criminal background, remains a concern.
Surachai, however, is adamant about the benefits the smart card can give its holder. It all started 20 year ago when Surachai was an official working at the district level. His work was bedevilled by faulty or incomplete information, he said. The problems that occurred most often were incorrect information input through human error, missing documents and out-of-date databases.
These problems made an efficient national registration administration system seem unachievable. At the time, Surachai was studying for a masters degree in Public Administration and Management Information Systems. The problems in his work challenged him to write his thesis on possible solutions.
“It was my dream to apply my knowledge to the organisation, and improve and re-engineer the operations to make them better,” he said.
On returning to his government post after completing his studies, he was tasked with organising a proposal for the smart-card scheme for Cabinet consideration. That was 20 years ago.
“After the plan was approved by Cabinet, we spent two years planning and preparing resources. We used existing resources and then collected as much information as possible from 1,077 offices in76 provinces. It took four years to manually collect all the information we needed,” Surachai said.
The Thai population database consisted of a database of registered households, a database of people, a database of registered voters, and a database of registered marriages and divorces.
“It was complete but the information was not updated because we worked manually. So, all the information from offices in the 76 provinces would be sent to the central office for updating once a month,” he said.
Even though it was updated monthly, the central database made Thailand the first country outside the US to win the Smithsonian Award in 1990 for using IT to improve the management of mankind.
The award encouraged Surachai to move forward with the project. As the director of the Registration Processing Centre, he initiated a project to link all 1,077 offices throughout the country to a computer network in order to improve the efficiency of registration services.
“It was my mission to allow people to spend less time when using the services of the registration offices wherever they are. In Bangkok or in rural areas they should receive the same standard of service,” he said.
All 1,077 offices of the Bureau of Registration Administration throughout the country have been connected via an online network, which allows information about the Thai populace to be updated in real time. When information is changed or updated at any bureau office the database server in Bangkok is automatically updated.
“It also allows us to provide ID card registration for people within 15 seconds instead of three months,” Surachai said.
This is the first step towards realisation of the all-in-one card concept. The card will ultimately come with multiple applications to serve multiple purposes. Instead of being just an ID card containing a person’s name it will also contain other information on the holder’s healthcare insurance, tax record, driving licence and social security status.
“There is no other country that is encouraging its entire population to have a smart card as an ID card. Other countries have issued a national ID smart card as an option for those who want one and are willing to pay for it,” said Surachai.
But these other countries may have good reasons for not compelling people to have such cards. Data-protection legislation is a very complicated matter and until a nation is well equipped enough and has deep-rooted respect for human rights, a smart ID card could be a double-edged sword.
But Surachai said he only considers himself a tech man, and aims to export the knowledge and drive Thailand to be a regional leader in terms of efficient registration of people.