22. March 2019

«Administrative bodies also need to be designers»


Innovation is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when you think of public administrative bodies. But, as Zug Municipal Council demonstrates, there is another way. In our interview, Town Clerk Martin Würmli explains how Zug became a first mover in e-ID and why public bodies need to take the lead when it comes to innovation.

When did you decide to introduce a blockchain e-ID within your administration?
We didn’t come up with the idea here at Zug Municipal Council. In fact, the Institute of Financial Services (IFZ) in Zug, together with the blockchain company ConsenSys and ti&m, approached us with the concept in 2017. They had launched a project linking an individual’s physical ID with a blockchain. As part of the project, they were looking for a local authority to adopt this electronic ID. We were impressed by the idea, because it is a good fit with the council’s other initiatives in the field of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. For instance, we were the first local authority in the world to accept payment in cryptocurrency. We’re also part of the “Crypto Valley” and therefore very familiar with concepts such as blockchain.

Why didn’t you join SwissID or SwissSign?
We were not convinced by SwissID, which already existed at the time. For one thing, we don’t like the fact that all the data is centrally stored in one location. This runs the risk of data being misused or hacked, or even being lost. We think blockchain is the better solution for this. With blockchain, data storage is decentralised; hence the data is far less vulnerable. Within our project, we also wanted to demonstrate how a digital ID might work in Switzerland in the future – as an alternative to SwissID.

Were these the only reasons for deciding against SwissID and SwissSign? After all, the major part-government-owned companies Swisscom, Swiss Post, and SBB are involved in the scheme.
I find it hard to believe that private and government-owned organisations will jointly issue IDs, because future e-IDs will carry the same weight as physical IDs or passports. If private companies issue the e-ID, then they shouldn’t also have access to the data. While Swiss Post and SBB have given assurances that they do not use the data, people receive targeted special offers from

“Even the mayor of Seoul expressed an interest in our solution.”

these companies as soon as they purchase a SwissID. It’s about the business model. If these companies are issuing e-IDs, then at a minimum the data should remain with the consumers. Our solution guarantees this. You decide which data is shared and when, and you control what happens to your data.

What was your experience of collaborating with ti&m and ConsenSys?
Within the project, we were simply the application partner. We didn’t have much to do with the technical aspects and tool development, as these were the responsibility of ti&m, IFZ, and U-Port/ ConsenSys. However, our experience of working with ti&m was excellent, and we would do the same again.

What plans are you currently working on?
We’re testing new areas of application for the e-ID on an ongoing basis. There will be a pilot project that enables users to borrow books from the municipal library using their digital ID, eliminating the need for a library card. Our next project – electric bike hire – is also in the pipeline. The lock can be opened by scanning the QR code, and the bike can be parked anywhere in the municipal area after your journey. We are also working on using the e-ID to simplify car parking. The fundamental idea is to use the e-ID to handle as many processes as possible in the future. It goes without saying that we would love to see external partners accept our e-ID, which is not the case at present. 

What has worked well with the development of the e-ID, and where do you see room for improvement?
The project has convinced me that blockchain-based identities are the best form of digital identity, particularly when compared to the centralised SwissID solution. This raises the question of how we, as a small administrative body, want to position ourselves. We obviously can’t issue IDs for the whole of Switzerland. We therefore need to ask whether our blockchain approach can gain traction on a federal level. If I’m being honest, I don’t hold out any great hopes for that. SwissID is already at an advanced stage. There is, at best, the possibility for Zug Municipal Council to be integrated into it at a future stage. At Zug Municipal Council, we are also considering whether we want to be an officially certified identity provider under the new federal act. However, our primary goal when launching the project was to initiate discussion and identify alternatives. Ultimately, we don’t want our citizens to have several electronic IDs. The e-ID has caused a major stir in the media, not least abroad.

To what extent can Zug Municipal Council benefit from this interest?
The e-ID needs to be seen within the context of our other cryptoactivities. The large numbers of companies who have based themselves in the crypto-cluster also have a role to play. Other administrative bodies have also expressed their interest. For example, the mayor of Seoul – a city with a population of over one million – recently visited us to find out more. Generally speaking, there is huge interest in our work. When I hold talks with authorities in other countries, especially in Germany, we are widely admired for our courage to innovate.

How do administrative bodies need to position themselves in an increasingly digital world?
As an administrative body, I think it is vital that we don’t simply react. We need to actively promote innovation. Of course, there’s always a risk of failure, but you have to run that risk. Administrative bodies need to behave a bit like start-ups. At the same time, the image of an administrative body has to change, from administrator to designer.

When will the physical passport be replaced by the e-ID?
It will happen very soon. An electronic ID allows you to operate seamlessly in the digital world. It will also be increasingly important to know who is who in the digital world. For this reason, I believe that the e-ID will be at least as important as the physical ID.

Martin Würmli
Martin Würmli

Martin Würmli has been Zug’s Town Clerk since 2014. Following his law degree at St.Gallen University, he practised as a lawyer for five years before being elected Department Secretary for Health and Social Services of the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden.