OPINION: Government plays its ID cards right

2012 promises to be a busy year. As well as being the year of the Olympics, it will mark the introduction of national identity cards.

Alex Aiken
Alex Aiken

It seemed as though the Government was losing the national ID card debate until the Home Secretary began the fight back last week with a sensible and measured comms policy based on selling the benefits, targeting key audiences, stressing value for money, making concessions and timetabling for incremental progress rather than going for a big-bang approach.

Jacqui Smith claims ID cards would protect, facilitate and verify identity. But it was noteworthy that she also highlighted enabling access to public services as a reason for the scheme.

It represents a move to sell the card as a benefit rather than a burden, as a passport to services rather than a required pass card. For good measure she also knocked £1bn off the cost, proving that prudence still has a place in government comms.

The deployment of cards will start with foreign nationals, workers at transport hubs and students, and involve a three-pronged strategy: stressing security to the public, creating advocates for the cards among users, but also showing the benefits to the critical business audience.

They can use the cards to verify identity for employment, for proof of age and residence, so reducing burdens, as well as removing the threat of prosecution for hiring illegal workers or serving minors.

The fact that this approach might work was conceded by the Conservative spokesman Dominic Grieve, who told Sky News the Government was trying to provide cards to groups 'where the public might say it's very good'. Exactly. Focusing on the public benefits of a programme, rather than the process, seems like very sensible public relations.

Opponents of the scheme still have the fascinating, if unrealistic, BBC drama The Last Enemy to buttress their case. Indeed, the BBC may have inadvertently created a new source of opposition to the ID scheme. And this demonstrates that selling it is still the biggest challenge facing public service communicators.

It will require patience, persistence and skill. But if successful it would surely be a banker for a PRWeek Award in 2012 - but not before.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council.

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