Austin Identity

Municipal identification cards are a new service innovation that solve multiple problems. Several large cities successfully operate municipal ID card programs. In Austin, an ID program would use minimal resources and serve diverse constituencies.


What are municipal identification cards?

Identification cards

IDs typically feature the photo and address of the cardholder, serving as basic identification. IDs can also serve as a simple piece of ‘hardware’ that replicates the services associated with library cards, transportation fare cards, parking payment cards, and social service enrollment cards. In New York City, their ID allows individuals to self-designate their sex without medical documentation. The Oakland ID is also a debit card.

What communities have implemented them?

There are approximately a dozen communities that have implemented municipal identification cards. The municipalities represented range from small communities in New Jersey to large cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The table above summarizes the implementation history of major municipal identification card programs.

What benefits do they provide?

IDs streamline several services into one card. They offer convenience to users and a cost-effective service delivery platform to government executives. For example, the DC One Card combined a series of school and recreation center credentials, library card privileges, and public transit system fare storage into one card.  They also display critical medical information and emergency contacts. Austin could go even further. For example, pool payment is a candidate for inclusion in the services the card could pay for.  There’s also interest in coordinating with B-Cycle.

In addition to being an efficient use of simple technology, there are also a set of inclusivity benefits.

Many essential services in the marketplace – picking up a prescription, renting an apartment, opening a bank account – require trusted, publicly-issued identification. Valid identification is also necessary for a broad set of interactions with local government. Some examples: enrollment in government-provided programs, gaining access to a child’s or grandchild’s school, smoothly interacting with law enforcement.

Most Austinites have an easy time getting access to identification such as a driver’s license. But certain groups of Austinites – the homeless, youth without stable parents, and low-income elderly have a difficult time assembling the documents and resources necessary to gain conventional identification. Undocumented workers similarly struggle to gain conventional identification. Austinites undergoing gender transitions also face the dilemma that their identification might be rejected as a result of a mismatch between the gender on their card and their actual gender. Municipal IDs address these needs.

One promising – and previously unexplored – benefit revolves around empowering greater citizen engagement through digital technology.


One of the great difficulties Council members and key City administrators face in using technology for governance tasks – ranging from processing testimony sign-ups at Council to issuing web-based surveys – is the lack of a credential that ties a City-verified identity to an email address in a City-accessible database. Municipal IDs provide a unique identifier for each user, can capture an email (and other demographic data), and obviously verify an identity. This opens up many interesting possibilities for digital interactions with residents that policymakers can trust are linked to real people.

What are the costs?

Costs vary depending on the specifics of the card, the vendor arrangements, and the staffing levels for the program. For example, the City of New Haven’s already-existing Bureau of Vital Statistics department absorbed the program’s operation at no additional cost. San Francisco’s costs for their program have been budgeted at around $150,000 per year. Using San Francisco as a benchmark for Austin, the $150,000 constitutes 0.018% of the $850.6 million 2014-2014 general fund budget. The Los Angeles City Council estimated that their implementation would be revenue neutral due to the fees collected by the debit card functionality.

What are the main arguments made by opponents of municipal ID cards?

One predictable argument is that municipal IDs are a ‘magnet’ for illegal immigration. This is not a compelling argument. The factors behind the entry of undocumented foreign immigrants are too varied and complicated for municipal IDs to have any impact on immigration patterns. That said, the power of this argument lies in the reactionary identity politics it evokes, not its empirical rigor.

A second argument involves ensuring the privacy of ID users. Remember, some of these implementations were focused on undocumented immigrants, therefore a municipal department all of a sudden was hosting a database full of individuals that aren’t legally entitled to work in the country. The New York Civil Liberties Union was opposed to the initial drafts of the NYC version, arguing it didn’t properly protect against ‘fishing expeditions’ by law enforcement agencies.

In New York, the city will store documents containing applicants’ personal information for up to two years. The data can only be disclosed to law enforcement under specific conditions such as when a law enforcement agency serves a judicial subpoena or warrant. As a compromise, the final version included various reporting requirements focused on tracking potential privacy violations. These requirements including reporting the number of requests by law enforcement agencies for applicants’ personal documents.

What’s next for municipal IDs in Austin?

Council Member Sheryl Cole is sponsoring the development of an implementation plan for a municipal ID in Austin.  This process will crystallize the extent of the need in Austin, the logistical obstacles, as well as the costs.  A coalition of well-respected organizations (including Asian Family Support Services of Austin, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, Out Youth, Texas Civil Rights Project, and Workers Defense Project) is working to support implementation.  The development of Austin’s municipal ID provides an opportunity for our community to live up to its identity as a progressive, welcoming place that embraces innovative government.

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