The Once-Only Policy

How this shift in thinking can revolutionize digital government.

Harvard Ash Center
3 min readMar 5, 2021

Written by Naeha Rashid

Over the past decade — and further accelerated by the pandemic — a consensus has started to emerge around both the need for and the basic elements of a digital era government. The need is straight forward, citizens increasingly experience seamless, fast and omnipresent service from the private sector, resetting their expectations of how public goods should be delivered. Governments increasingly recognize that delivering on this expectation — creating a digital era government — requires some core digital infrastructure.

“Deploying the Once-Only Policy: A Privacy-Enhancing Guide for Policymakers and Civil Society Actors” was published by the Ash Center to discuss approaches as well as pitfalls when it comes to implementing the Once-Only Policy.

The cornerstone of this infrastructure is the ability of governments to collect, associate, store, and share information about individuals across government institutions at the federal, state, and local levels. Such an infrastructure can authenticate citizens, reduce corruption and information collection and allow the government to proactively offer services. In pursuit of this goal, some countries enforce a once-only policy where users (citizens, residents, and businesses) have to provide diverse data only one time when in contact with public administrations; after the initial data transfer, different parts of government can internally share and reuse this data to create public value and better serve users.

We became interested in once-only as it appears to act as a gateway not just for government modernization in terms of data sharing, but also because it promotes a view of government that is citizen-centric and creates a technical basis for the development of platform-style services. In other words once-only in many ways has the potential to fundamentally transform government operations for the better.

With these many benefits however there are also risks. In a world where we are increasingly aware and concerned about our data being used without our knowledge and in ways that are potentially harmful to us, there are significant privacy concerns that accompany a policy like once-only. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, there is a risk that incorrect implementation of once-only could concentrate and increase state power to the detriment of individuals’ privacy and freedoms.

At its core, our work is about managing the inherent tension between the potential benefits and risks of once-only implementation by creating sufficiently strong structures and safeguards across every aspect of the enabling environment and structures that allow once-only to flourish. Ultimately, we hope that this research will maximize the state’s capacity to create public goods and benefits to increase public welfare, while simultaneously ensuring the safety of public service users and their trust in the government’s use of their private information.

To access the full report, click here

About the Author

Naeha Rashid explores digital government issues as a former research fellow at the Ash Center. She is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and of McGill University.



Harvard Ash Center

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.