UK steps back from Verify ID system

By on 16/10/2018
Six years after launching its project to create a single online ID verification platform, the UK government is cutting it loose

The UK has announced the end of public funding for its digital identity programme, Verify.

Last week, the government signed five 18-month contracts with its certified private sector identity partners, tapering off the amount of public money they receive. Oliver Dowden, parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office, told MPs that this will be the last investment that the government will provide directly to support the programme.

He said: “The government will continue to provide state backed assurance and standards to ensure there is trust and confidence in the emergent digital identity market.” The UK now, he said, “expects that commercial organisations will create and reuse digital identities, and accelerate the creation of an interoperable digital identity market.”

High hopes

The GOV.UK Verify project was launched in 2011 by the Government Digital Service (GDS), with initial funding of £10m ($13m). In a blog post at the time, the then-GDS head Mike Bracken said: “The days of creating different user names and passwords for every new website are numbered, thank goodness.

“There is a strong desire to work collaboratively across the public and private sectors to develop solutions that meet users differing needs.”

The intention was to create a single ID verification system through which citizens would be able to access services across government, with a number of accredited private companies competing to sign up users.

However, several key departments have avoided using the service. Last year, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the UK’s tax authority, confirmed it would develop a dedicated identity verification system for its online users rather than use Verify. Citizens trying to sign up for Verify have encountered repeated problems with the registration process, raising concerns in the Department for Work and Pensions – which is attempting to move millions of benefits claimants onto a digital system. And in August Nic Harrison, who was in charge of GDS’s work on Verify, left to rejoin the Department for Work and Pensions.

Dashed

In March 2017, the government’s UK Digital Strategy set out an ambition to have 25m users on the system by 2020. However Kevin Cunnington, the current head of GDS, says that since the system went live in 2016 it has attracted just 3m users who have performed an average of 2.5 transactions using the service.

Nonetheless, Cunnington wrote in a blog post last week that the government still wants Verify to be the foundation of identity platforms that can be used across the public and private sectors. “So that the same digital identity platform that helps you check your state pension could in the future help you check your savings account too,” he said.

However, Mike Thomas, managing director at Innopsis – a trade association for private sector firms supplying services to the public sector – questioned whether the private sector would have enough incentives to continue with the initiative once public cash dries up.

“The revenue model is not completely clear,” he said. “If the government is hoping that private providers will develop this and provide the platform to the government to use, then it might be challenging.

“Tech companies are looking to develop products that work globally – generally, you would want a bigger potential marketplace than just the UK.”

Fit for purpose?

At an event organised by the Institute for Government in July, former GDS chief Mike Bracken said that implementing cross-government digital initiatives had proved a struggle due to “a leadership culture that puts sovereignty ahead of service users”.

“Many of the people running departments fundamentally believe that the platform model takes away their power,” he said. “And they believe that because power in Whitehall is often perceived as: how many of the levers in my world do I control?”

When the centre pushes for departments to engage with platform services, he added, “the real pushback comes from the operational model of Whitehall.”

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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