Gov.uk Verify is the Theresa May of digital government.
The embattled Prime Minister faces calls to quit from all around – her own Conservative MPs, grassroots Tory activists, the right-wing press and more. Yet she refuses to go until she delivers Brexit, oblivious to the criticism, convinced of the validity of her actions, blinkered by determination to prove to everyone she is right.
The embattled digital identity programme has been similarly slammed from every angle.
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority – the government’s own major projects watchdog – recommended Verify should be scrapped.
The National Audit Office (NAO) – the official financial watchdog of Whitehall spending – said “it is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified” and “the performance of Verify has consistently been below the standards set out in each of its business cases”.
And now MPs on the Public Accounts Committee – the parliamentary body that provides oversight to government spending – has added its view that Verify “is failing its users”. It goes on: “Key government departments do not want to use the system and members of the public are facing problems signing up.” And the MPs didn’t stop there, adding that the project has been “characterised by poor decision-making by the Cabinet Office and GDS” that was “compounded by their failure to take proper accountability”.
But, like Theresa May, GDS is unperturbed. In a statement to the press following the PAC report, the Cabinet Office and GDS said: “Verify has saved taxpayers more than £300m and is a world-leading example of how to enable people to use services securely online. The PAC report reflects that this has been a challenging project – but challenges like these are to be expected when the government is working at the forefront of new technology. Verify is now at a point where it can be taken forward by the private sector, so people will be able to safely and securely access both private and public online services.”
Like a statement by May on her next set of deadlines for Brexit, even this cannot be taken at face value.
“Verify has saved taxpayers more than £300m”?
According to the NAO, “On the evidence made available to us, we have not been able to replicate or validate the benefits estimated by GDS.”
“Challenges like these are to be expected when the government is working at the forefront of new technology”?
According to the PAC, “Verify clearly demonstrates many of the failings we see all too often on large government projects: expectations were over-optimistic from the start, key targets have been badly missed and results simply not delivered.”
“Verify is now at a point where it can be taken forward by the private sector”?
According to the PAC, “The Cabinet Office and GDS have no meaningful plan for what will happen to Verify post-2020,” when the system is handed over to the private sector.
As with May, only two outcomes are possible from here. Perhaps GDS will be proved right, and Verify will become a triumphant example of public sector innovation stimulating a valuable new market for digital identity. Perhaps the Prime Minister will get her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament too.
Or perhaps every expert body that has assessed the situation will be proved right instead. Perhaps the phrase, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging,” might be proved accurate once more.