UK ID verification scheme hit by “optimism bias and ill-defined objectives”, says watchdog

By on 11/03/2019
UK online identity system Verify has struggled to attract users amongst the public and departments alike (Image courtesy: TheDigitalWay/Pixabay).

The UK’s flagship digital identity verification system has been severely criticised by the National Audit Office, in a move likely to reinforce the search for alternative models among other governments.

The spending watchdog said that the Government Digital Service’s (GDS’s) Verify scheme has the right goals – the creation of a single platform that can be used to access multiple services, whilst protecting users’ privacy – but its report identified many of the problems that have historically afflicted government IT projects, and raised concerns about continued spending on the scheme.

“Unfortunately, Verify is… an example of many of the failings in major programmes that we often see, including optimism bias and failure to set clear objectives,” said the report, which was published last week. “Even in the context of GDS’s redefined objectives for the programme, it is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified.”

Poor takeup

Under the Verify programme, GDS has accredited a number of businesses to build and supply ID verification systems, and encouraged departments to use the system in their digital services.

However, user numbers have fallen far short of expectations. The original target was for 25m citizens to have accounts by 2020, but by February 2019 only 3.6m had signed up. “If current trends continue, approximately 5.4m users will have signed up by 2020,” it said.

Similarly, only 19 government services currently use Verify – less than half the number that had been expected by March 2018.

Departments steering clear

The slow uptake of Verify among service providers appears to reflect concerns over its capabilities and ease of use.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs told the NAO that it did not adopt Verify because the system can’t deal with business customers or agents acting on behalf of others. And the report found that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had dropped Verify and returned to its own customer registration process after customers found it difficult to use the new system.

Because the government did not mandate the use of Verify by departments at an early stage, many are using their own alternative systems, the report said.

“Our work on shared services found that the programme faced implementation difficulties because individual departments felt the central standardised solution offered did not meet their specific needs,” said the NAO. “There are similarities with the Cabinet Office’s shared services programme.”

GDS’s latest estimate is that Verify will save the government £217m (US$285m) between 2016 and 2020 – a fall of 75% on the £873m (US$1.14bn) predicted in its 2016 business case. However, the NAO commented: “We have not been able to replicate or validate GDS’s estimated benefits on the evidence made available to us.”

The search for a solution

Whilst countries – such as Estonia – with national citizen ID systems have a solid base on which to build identity verification tools, other countries are feeling their way towards a solution. And the UK’s experience will provide some pointed lessons.

Last month, Canada’s federal government CIO Alex Benay told Global Government Forum that “we’re making our way towards more of a federated identity verification system.” Public sector ID verification standards are set out in a Pan-Canadian Trust Framework, he explained, and it might be possible for all kinds of organisations to provide access to public services: “That could easily be extended into the banks, your insurance company, your energy provider, your car,” he said.

In a December interview with Global Government Forum, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington acknowledged that Verify had not been an easy scheme to manage: “It’s quite complicated trying to build an identity service in the economy, through five outsourced providers, on the scale of a 60 million-person country,” he said.

But he argued that October’s announcement ending public funding for the scheme – widely interpreted as a sign that the government was losing confidence – was always part of the plan. “In this final phase, we’re working very closely with the five providers to reduce the price down to something we think is a commodity price, but also to encourage and help them to build volume in the private sector,” he explained.

Responding to the NAO report, a GDS spokesman told BBC News that “Verify is saving taxpayers money and is a world-leading project in its field.

“The NAO report reflects that it has been a challenging project – but challenges like these are to be expected when the government is working at the forefront of new technology.”

About Colin Marrs

Colin Marrs is a journalist specialising in local and national government, as well as architecture and the built environment. Colin previously worked as digital content editor at Campaign, the advertising industry "bible".

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