The remarkable levels of secrecy and avoidance of scrutiny around the Gov.uk Verify digital identity scheme continue – and if anything, seem to have reached new levels of absurdity.
Last week, Labour’s shadow digital minister, Chi Onwurah, submitted a series of parliamentary questions (PQs) to the Cabinet Office, asking about the future of Verify – which, as a reminder, is due to lose funding from April 2020, as well as losing most of its private sector identity providers.
Onwurah asked the following five, highly pertinent, questions:
- To ask the minister for the Cabinet Office, what steps his department has taken in response to the conclusions of the National Audit Office (NAO) report entitled Investigation into Verify published on 5 March 2019.
- To ask the minister for the Cabinet Office, how much funding will be allocated to the Verify government digital identity scheme for the 2020-21 financial year.
- To ask the minister for the Cabinet Office, when he plans to publish the findings of the digital identity consultation, which closed on 15 September 2019.
- To ask the minister for the Cabinet Office, what steps he is taking in response to the withdrawal of identity providers from the government’s Verify scheme in April 2020.
- To ask the minister for the Cabinet Office, what assessment his department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on UK government digital identity providers located in EU member states.
Let’s also not forget, that Verify is estimated by the NAO to have cost at least £175m of taxpayer’s money by the end of this month.
Today, the Cabinet Office, through paymaster general Penny Mordaunt, responded to the questions. Mordaunt provided the exact same answer to all five questions, which was:
There are no changes to the commercial agreements of levels of service with UK government digital identity providers as a result of the UK leaving the EU.
The government’s response to the digital identity consultation (Call for Evidence) will be published in due course.
Verify is delivered with private sector providers and next steps will be announced in the usual manner.
An extensive response to the Public Accounts Committee report was published in October 2019 and can be found at CP 176 – Treasury Minutes Government response to the Committee of Public Accounts.
Governments are used to providing non-answers to opposition PQs, but those are about as “non” as you can get. This is becoming a pattern of recent behaviour – last month, Computer Weekly reported on the non-update presentation given by the government’s director of digital identity, Lisa Barrett, at a major digital ID event in London.
Onwurah told Computer Weekly she was disappointed to see the “sheer complacency and lack of transparency” in the government’s responses to her questions.
“Given the issues that we’ve seen raised in very serious reports from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee, I’m staggered that the government thinks it’s appropriate to take such a cloak-and-dagger approach,” she said.
“Nearly four years after Gov.uk Verify was introduced, we have a system which is failing its users and missing key targets. It’s just not good enough.”
Digital identity stakeholders across the private sector – as well as the public sector – have been waiting for many months for updates on what happens next with Verify. When Computer Weekly talks to some of those stakeholders, the frustration and annoyance at the ongoing silence from the Cabinet Office is obvious.
It’s less than a month now, to the previously announced time when Verify is meant to become self-funding. Next month, only two of the current five identity providers will still accept new users. More than two million existing Verify users will have to re-register with a new provider within 12 months – going through the onerous identity assurance checks all over again – in a process that could cost the government as much as £40m.
Or perhaps the Cabinet Office has come up with a solution so ingenious and innovative that all Verify’s problems are about to be solved and they just want to ramp up the anticipation.
An announcement will surely be made at some point soon – better late than never – but Verify’s reputation and stakeholders’ trust in government’s ability to deliver on digital identity, continues to plummet in the meantime.