The Government Digital Service (GDS) has published its first blog post on Gov.uk Verify since July 2019. Given the dearth of communications about the troubled digital identity system, it tells a strong and positive story.
As Computer Weekly was first to report, the post-lockdown surge in Universal Credit applications led to a meltdown in Verify – and GDS has now revealed the scale of the problems.
Between 16 March and 26 April, over 640,000 people set up new Verify accounts, as a result of some 1.6 million applications to Universal Credit. A system used to 35,000 registrations per week was completely overwhelmed, and GDS now says the online queues peaked at 155,000 people.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would typically see 55,000 calls about Universal Credit in a week – in March they received 2.2 million calls on a single day, according to Digidentity, one of the two identity providers (IDPs) that support Verify.
The two IDPs – the other is the Post Office – could only cope with 25 people setting up an account per minute. After remedial work alongside GDS, that’s now up to 400 per minute.
Real-time analytics helped to isolate problems in the user journey. Load balancing helped to spread the workload. And all this while the Verify team were having to adapt to working remotely themselves. Credit is due to the team for what must have been an incredibly stressful period.
Let’s for now skip over the fact that, until the end of March, there were five IDPs but three of them had by then quit the programme – don’t want to be too churlish. Oh, and the fact that the Post Office is basically a “white-label” version of Digidentity that runs off the same back-end identity engine. You can read all about that elsewhere.
Last week, however, Computer Weekly revealed that Verify is now living on borrowed time. The system, which has cost over £175m already, was due to cease receiving government funding in April, but was given a temporary reprieve as a result of the Universal Credit (UC) surge. HM Treasury agreed to allow Verify to continue receiving public money for a further 18 months, as long as it came from existing budgets.
During that time, no new services will be added to the Verify roster, and GDS has to help existing services to remove any dependency on using Verify as their sole identity system.
It seems likely, therefore, that the remedial work for Verify to keep supporting UC will have been at least partly (if not mostly) funded by DWP – and as such, DWP will be a huge factor in how the next 18 months plays out for Verify.
How has DWP responded? By accelerating its own programme to eliminate any dependence on Verify.
DWP CIO Simon McKinnon revealed last week that the department has brought forward plans to introduce its own in-house developed digital identity system, known as Confirm your Identity.
The first phase of this initiative is already live, allowing recent users of Government Gateway – the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) digital ID system used by 11 million people for tax self-assessment – to bypass Verify when applying for UC. This also helped alleviate the initial surge bottleneck.
But that’s not all.
“We are enhancing the service to allow all Universal Credit claimants the opportunity to use the Confirm Your Identity option to prove their identity”, said DWP, in response to a query from Computer Weekly.
The DWP spokesperson also added: “The Confirm Your Identity service is part of the DWP Identity Verification approach which also includes the option to use Gov.UK Verify.”
Whitehall politics dictates that DWP has to state that Verify remains an option for UC. But if you’re DWP, and you’re spending your budget on your own digital ID system, would you really want to keep digging into your pockets to keep funding Verify too?
If – when – DWP creates a way for all the UC claimants that used Verify, to log in using Confirm Your Identity instead, the end is surely nigh for the GDS scheme.