Verify on the verge – what does it mean for GDS?

The government’s flagship digital identity system Gov.uk Verify has become a car crash in motion, accelerating towards its demise.

The Cabinet Office’s project watchdog has condemned Verify by recommending it be scrapped because the departments that would have to fund its continuation have lost confidence in its ability to deliver.

But the Government Digital Service (GDS) is hoping it can resist the inevitable and is making one more attempt to gain funding to keep Verify going. Realistically, the best outcome GDS can hope for is a managed decline to allow those few services that adopted Verify time to find an alternative.

GDS is pinning its hopes on Universal Credit, which has Verify as part of its user registration process. Given that the Department for Work and Pensions had so little confidence in Verify as long ago as 2015 that it decided to develop its own digital ID system to fill in the gaps, this seems an unlikely hill on which to fight Verify’s last battle.

The cost will be significant – GDS has spent at least £130m on Verify so far, which doesn’t include how much other departments have spent integrating Verify or – in too many cases – developing an alternative.

Verify promised so much, but GDS leadership failed to listen to the counsel of those who have said for some time it needed to change direction. A recent attempt to “reset” the project was too little and too late.

Ed Tucker, the former head of IT security at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), put it well on Twitter: “There has been some simply awesome work done by GDS. Truly awesome. Changing the face of delivery. This though, is classic horrific government IT programme. Flogged to death at great expense to save face.”

The implications of scrapping Verify are significant. Private sector identity companies have invested heavily in developing software to be compatible with the GDS system. The UK has pinned its plans for EU-wide digital identity interoperability on Verify.

But GDS has already lost control of Verify’s role in the wider UK identity ecosystem – that responsibility moved to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in June. GDS is contributing to a review of digital identity policy, but that’s now being led by DCMS. It seems unlikely that DCMS will be a lone voice in support of Verify when so many other departments have lost confidence.

Verify’s original goal was to replace the ageing Government Gateway system now owned by HMRC. But after seven years, Verify has less functionality than the clunky old Gateway – a system developed in just 90 days that is still in widespread use 17 years after its launch.

What next for GDS?

What does this mean for GDS? There’s no denying it is a huge blow – Verify is one of the core systems for GDS, taking up a significant chunk of the funding allocated to GDS in the 2015 spending review.

This will be the second major failure for GDS – the first coming back in March 2015 when a GDS-led project at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) collapsed. To GDS’s credit, two major failures in seven years is a huge improvement on what came before. But RPA dented confidence in GDS’s ability to deliver on large-scale systems integration projects, and gave ammunition to the Whitehall mandarins who never liked GDS in the first place.

Scrapping Verify could have even wider repercussions – it was included in the Conservative manifesto for the general election in 2017, and ministers don’t like seeing their high-profile policies shot down from within.

With the Cabinet Office’s own major projects authority recommending the termination of the biggest project in another Cabinet Office organisation, you have to think this implies a loss of confidence in GDS from the highest levels of the Cabinet Office too.

The recommendation from the Infrastructure & Projects Authority seems to have come as a shock to GDS. When Computer Weekly requested a statement about our story and asked specific questions about the future of Verify, GDS and the Cabinet Office declined to comment. That in itself is an indictment of any organisation under scrutiny over the potential waste of £130m of taxpayers’ money.

At this point it’s difficult not to raise the issue of leadership. There was a brief rumour recently that GDS director general Kevin Cunnington was leaving – he’s not – but sources say there were a lot of happy people in GDS when the story first circulated.

In December last year, a GDS staff survey leaked to Computer Weekly revealed major concerns about leadership. Only 28% of GDS employees gave a positive response – down five percentage points on the previous year; 16 percentage points below the average across the whole Cabinet Office; and 26 percentage points down on the top teams across all of the civil service departments that took part in the survey.

Talk privately to senior people in digital government in Whitehall and leadership is the biggest concern they raise over GDS’s future. The Institute for Government has also been critical of Whitehall leadership around digital, data and technology.

Cunnington chose – and was backed – to change GDS’s role to be more of a support, education and consultancy operation, rather than the disruptive transformational approach of his predecessors. He has been largely successful in achieving that change – but at the price of diminishing GDS’s influence across Whitehall, according to multiple sources. GDS also lost control of data policy to DCMS earlier this year.

Note that when we talk generally about”leadership” here, it’s not specifically a reference to Cunnington – many experts are critical of his boss, permanent secretary John Manzoni, and some GDS staff have in the past expressed concerns about others in the GDS senior team.

GDS is taking an important role in supporting the technology implications of Brexit, and while EU exit remains the biggest priority for this government it’s unlikely anyone will want to get in the way. But the next spending review is coming up. GDS has 860 staff and an annual budget of £128m – it seems incredibly unlikely the Treasury would approve similar resources if £130m is written off from the failure of its highest-profile flagship project.

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