10 May 2019

Gavin Freeguard argues that the problems seen in the rolling out of Verify highlight issues for future technology projects. 

This Public Accounts Committee report confirmed what we all already knew about Verify. The Government’s flagship digital ID programme, through which citizens can access digital public services through proving their identity, is off track and not providing value for money. 

Only four million people have signed up – one-sixth of the original plan for 25 million by 2020. Many departments are not using it in their services – and only 19 services are making use of it. Public funding for Verify will stop in March 2020. 

A lot of the failings are common to other troubled projects across government – not least over-optimistic expectations and a lack of clarity about plans. But four points from the PAC report are likely to pose particular challenges for digital government projects. 

1. Centre vs department tensions have still not been resolved 

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report says "GDS’s inability to get buy-in from departments ultimately led to Verify’s failure." There has been a longstanding tension between the role of the centre (specifically, the Government Digital Service) and the role of departments in digital transformation – as we’ve noted before, departments often resent what they regard as ‘interference’ from the centre.  

The Science and Technology Committee has been taking evidence on the role of the Government Digital Service (GDS), and PAC recommends that the Cabinet Office should outline how it will secure buy-in from departments in the business cases for digital projects. 

If digital government is to be successful, the centre of government and departments will need to work more closely together. The Institute has previously argued that clarifying and strengthening the responsibilities of the head of the data, digital and technology profession is part of this process. 

2. Digital services add a new twist to existing accountability problems 

The PAC criticises the Cabinet Office for ‘not taking proper accountability for the programme’s shortcomings’. And turnover of civil servants means those in place when projects begin often aren’t there when questions are asked (a number of witnesses blamed the over-optimism of their predecessors).  

Clear lines of accountability become even more important in a ‘government as a platform’ world. There are various definitions of this, but in short it means that there are some components of a digital service – like Verify for identity checking, or a payment system – which can be built once by one part of government and then used by multiple services developed by other departments. Who is responsible if something goes wrong with one of those common components – the part of government that built it, or the part of government responsible for the service?  

3. Government has to avoid digital exclusion 

One of the most obvious successes of digital approaches in government has been a greater focus on and greater involvement of users in designing services. This helps to narrow the gap between policy and delivery. But the PAC report notes that many users found Verify ‘clunky’, particularly those using Universal Credit – many of whom did not have strong, existing digital footprints.  

This is a useful reminder that, as the Government looks to digitise more services, it does not exclude those who may have less online access and experience. And in a world where governments are introducing algorithms to make decisions, it is vital that already underrepresented groups are not disadvantaged further, through possible biases against them being more deeply ingrained. 

4. There needs to be a plan for digital identity 

More and more public services are moving online – there are now around 800 – and the ability of citizens to confirm their identity online will become ever more important. But the PAC says there is "no meaningful plan for what will happen to Verify post-2020", when public funding will stop, and that the Government is ‘betting’ on a private sector market emerging.  

The Institute has previously argued that the Government needs to publish a plan for how it will actually implement its digital ambitions. It needs to be particularly clear about how it will handle citizens’ data, and what its plan is for digital identity. There has already been confusion about which department is ultimately responsible, with some policy responsibilities moving to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). 

In particular, the Government needs to clarify how it plans to use personal data and what it does next on allowing citizens to confirm their identity when using digital services, given the travails of Verify, the transfer of digital identity policy to DCMS and the fact that many departments continue to use their own systems. 

Verify’s failings highlight many familiar issues afflicting major government projects. But they also show some challenges that are new, or intensified, in our increasingly digital world. 

Further information

The Institute for Government is starting a new programme of work focused on future technology in government. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch with digital@instituteforgovernment.org.uk.