Public services cards: the case for and against

Government argues they facilitate efficient delivery of services, but not everyone is convinced

The project to develop the public services card was first identified by the then government in 2004 as an “important component” for modernising the delivery of public services.

It aimed to create a standardised means of accessing public services and for people to verify their identity. The card was rolled out to replace existing cards, such as the social welfare card and the free travel card.

A contract was signed with a supplier for the cards in December 2009 at a fixed price of €19.7 million plus VAT to produce three million cards by the end of 2013. About 4,000 cards were issued in 2011 in a pilot project, and the numbers have gradually increased as people claiming various State benefits were registered to get one.

The Department of Social Protection put in place 160 registration stations at 100 locations, each of them with a capacity to handle 100 registrations per week.


The department has been issuing, on average, about 50,000 cards a month this year. It has a target of three million in total by the end of 2017.

If it exceeds that quota, it will obtain a 5 per cent discount on the total cost of the cards – a cost per card of €4.38 for the standard card and €5.62 for the card with the free travel access.

If it does not hit three million, the department will pay the full cost of the cards. The total cost of the project will be about €60 million up to the end of this year, after the contract was revised on two occasions to accommodate changes to the card and delays to the project.

In 2016 a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General found there was "no single business case" set out for the public services card project. Seamus McCarthy said no comprehensive estimate of the total cost of the project had been prepared and there had been no initial assessment of the department's capacity to deliver the project or a formal assessment of its risks.

‘Not compulsory’

Earlier this year, the Government launched a public information campaign urging all people to register for the card in order to help them access public services more efficiently. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the card was not, and would not be, compulsory.

A key advantage, according to the departments driving the project – Social Protection, and Public Expenditure and Reform – is that the delivery of services is more efficient when a person’s identity does not have to be authenticated at every transaction. They also believe the card has already begun to reduce rates of fraud, forgery and error.

State databases containing vast quantities of citizens’ information are of concern from a fundamental rights perspective, due to fears they may be hacked, sold or otherwise abused for unintended purposes. Here, there have been concerns about leaks of data from the Department of Social Protection to private investigators.

Ireland, the UK and Denmark are the only remaining European Union countries without national ID cards. They are used uncontroversially in other member states. There have been various efforts to introduce compulsory ID cards in Britain, but they have been vigorously opposed by civil liberties groups, including Liberty and an organisation called No2ID.