Working to make government more effective


Digital government needs to find its identity 

The lack of clear direction on digital identity will jeopardise progress  

Marcus Shepheard argues that while the ongoing crisis has accelerated the digital transformation of government, the lack of clear direction on digital identity will jeopardise progress  

Through October, the government's three major economic support programmes – the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme – paid out nearly £65 billion.

But while these end-to-end digital schemes, all run from HMRC, were successfully built and launched in record time, a major hurdle was checking the identity of people applying. HMRC never adopted the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) Verify platform. For identity assurance it favours its own Government Gateway system, which it had developed prior to Verify and has specifically designed its digital services around. So even as a surge of registrations approached, the government didn’t have a unified system of digital identity. Indeed, it still doesn’t. 

Looking for ways to reach more people, the team at HMRC reached out to DVLA. Together they set up a new data sharing agreement so that people could register for the economic support schemes using their driving licence. This route proved particularly popular with some surprising groups, including farmers. Similar data sharing agreements were negotiated by GDS when it set up its service to help shield vulnerable people. The government needs to learn from, and replicate, the success of these collaborations.

Digital identity will become increasingly important 

The coronavirus crisis has dramatically accelerated the pace of digital transformation in public services. Initially this revolved around simple transactions with government such as renewing a licence, making a payment or requesting a permit. But during this crisis we have seen a rapid digital transformation of courts, outpatient departments, GP clinics and schools. In some cases the coronavirus pandemic accelerated changes that were already happening, but other uses have been novel and more radical. In some instances this seems to have worked reasonably well (virtual courts), and in others has been a borderline disaster (remote learning for schoolchildren). 

The trend is clear, however, and over time we can expect more and more of what government does for us to be delivered via digital means. But to do this the government needs a more coherent and robust system for digital identity. 

Verify is not the answer to digital identity

The coronavirus crisis has made it clear that Verify is not going to be the government’s long-term solution for identity assurance. Despite the surge in registrations during the crisis it still doesn't have a wide base of users, it is still only integrated into 22 of the thousands of government digital services, and is a system opposed by several parts of government. 

GDS has made improvements after some damning and justified criticism from the National Audit Office and others about Verify's costs and performance, and during the early stages of the current crisis it helped the Department for Work and Pensions manage the huge surge in demand for Universal Credit. But DWP, like HMRC, is developing another separate system for identity assurance (Confirm your Identity). 

The relationship between people and government cannot simply be a long series of one-to-one transactions. This is inefficient and potentially insecure, and services need to speak to and complement each other. For example, health, education and employment services all overlap. Improving how they connect could improve effectiveness and efficiency. The future of digital identity demands something bigger than Verify, which is clearly not accepted by all parts of government and likely never will be. The government should strive to develop a consistent cross-government digital identity.  

The government's chief digital officer would be able to grapple with these issues. But first the government actually needs to appoint someone to fill that vacancy. The government created this new and important post months ago, but it is yet to be filled. The importance of digital technology to the government’s ongoing response to this crisis and any future recovery suggests that it should be making this appointment a priority. Do that, and much-needed progress on digital identity and wider digital transformation will be more attainable. 

Institute for Government

Related content