Changing the landscape of civil registration in JamaicaTuesday, May 04, 2021
THE Registrar General's Department (RGD) was opened in Jamaica in 1879 with its core mandate to register, store and maintain safe and accurate records of all life events occuring in Jamaica and its waters. This mandate is manifested through the current storage of just under eight million records in a combination of physical and electronic format dating back to the 17th century.
The general register office of the RGD is the section with which all Jamaicans interface, at some point, throughout their life. It is here that Jamaicans pay for and obtain a civil registration certificate, which is produced from a civil record created by the RGD for one of the various life events such as birth, marriage and ultimately death.
Impact of civil registration
The birth certificate, which is the most popular and highly demanded product of the RGD, is often referred to in the civil registration industry as the 'breeder' document. The 'breeder' document is the genesis for the creation of all other national documents. The birth certificate is the main prerequisite for obtaining a passport, an NIS number, a tax registration number (TRN), a visa, a green card, as well as, it permits entry into primary education. It will also be the prerequisite for enrolment into the national identification system (NIDS).
The birth certificate, therefore, is an inherent and integral requirement for entering the formal economy via employment, as well as the formalised social sector. Persons who do not have a birth certificate often find themselves living on the fringes of society, most times dependent on third-party assistance for the execution of relatively basic social and economic activities.
It is this risk which has made the United Nations set as one of its targets under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, peaceful and inclusive societies, that by 2030 governments across the world should provide legal identity for all, including birth registration, thereby making the formal and explicit link between civil registration and social and economic development.
From a legal, social and anthropological perspective, the birth certificate is also used to establish paternal lineage. The Administrator General's Department, for example, uses the birth certificate of potential beneficiaries as one of the primary documents to aid in the settlement of a deceased's estate when the person dies intestate and has left behind minors.
Historical improvements in civil (birth) registration coverage
Jamaica has pioneered several strategic policy initiatives over the years to improve the registration coverage for vital events. The RGD currently enjoys birth registration coverage of approximately 98 per cent of all live births. This puts Jamaica at the front of the queue among its Caribbean counterparts. Pivotal in this registration coverage success was the 2007 twofold policy of 'bedside birth registration' and the 'first free' birth certificate. The Government through this policy incentivised the following parameters around birth registration:
*Institutional births – which resulted in more deliveries attended by a skilled medical practitioner (physician, nurse, midwife, etc). This directly leads to improvement in child and maternal mortality.
* 'Complete' registration – that is, an increase in the numbers of babies being registered with their full names included at the time of registration. This reduces the potential for identity theft.
It must also be noted that an indirect benefit of the policy is the increased percentage of registrations, wherein the father's name is included on the birth record. Prior to the 2007 policy, about 40 per cent of fathers had their information included on the birth record, post 2007 that number increased incrementally and steadily and now averages approximately 60 per cent.
The 21st century civil registry
Jamaica has done and continues to do an excellent job with civil registration, in particular with population coverage. The demands of a modern society, however, require that the landscape continues to change to facilitate continuous improvement through systematic upgrades. To this end, the national civil registry is pursuing several initiatives.
In 2017 through a small project, bedside birth registrations are now being conducted electronically via tablets. This results in real time (where Internet connectivity is available) upload of registration data to the master database. The current reach of this project is limited to regional hospitals and currently cover about 45 per cent of total births. This project is scheduled for islandwide expansion through the efforts of the NIDS project, whereby 60 registration tablets were procured and delivered to the RGD.
One of the greatest demands on modern civil registries is the ability to verify the information it produces and to make linkages along the 'life events' continuum. The RGD has been cited in the past for its inability to link vital events throughout an individual's life course. Simply meaning, there is no explicit linkage of a birth registration to a marriage registration and ultimately to a death registration, even though all events are registered by the same entity.
Acknowledging this as a clear gap, strategic emphasis was placed on giving the civil registry the ability to link its vital events. The efforts have reaped success, and the RGD will commence its massive and ambitious exercise of explicitly linking all vital events. The back-end work has been completed, tested and approved. This exercise will begin with the birth database, and will gradually be applied to the marriage and death database. The agency is timetabled to commence this activity soon. The long-awaited linking of vital events is a major development within the civil registration landscape and greatly complements the Government's wider thrust to implement a NIDS.
Benefits of closing the civil registration loop
By explicitly linking vital events throughout an individual's life course, the civil registration loop becomes identifiable and complete. There are several benefits to be obtained from having a complete civil registration system. First and foremost the Government will be better able to plan and execute several of its social security and welfare programmes for its citizens.
Particular benefits can be derived for the pension industry where, up to present, pension administrators are challenged with cleaning their beneficiary databases for the simple reason that they cannot explicitly link a birth certificate to a death certificate. This potentially leads to inefficiencies in the management of such schemes, both in the private and public sector.
There also exists government health schemes that would also benefit from a linked civil registry where it is equally critical to be able to reliably clean and periodically purge the relevant databases.
Benefits also extend to individual customers in the form of genealogical services and research into one's heritage. The genealogy research service now offered by the RGD will be significantly enhanced by the ability to discreetly link the various life events such as birth, children's birth (linked to mother), marriage and death of an individual.
As Jamaica transitions to a digital society the reliance on credible, clear and transparent information is paramount to its success. While civil registration often goes under the radar, its importance cannot be overstated nor underestimated. The ability to bring to pass and subsequent execution of the vital events linkages is the single most critical development in the local civil registration landscape since the first free/bedside registration policy 14 years ago. Civil registration continues to be the silent driver of economic and social integration globally and is a key prerequisite for sustainable development.
Charlton McFarlane is chief executive officer of the Registrar General's Department.
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