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The government’s major project experts warned as early as 2015 that performance problems with the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance system would have a “material effect” on the business plan for Universal Credit.
A review of the Universal Credit (UC) programme, released this week under Freedom of Information laws, shows the Major Project Authority (MPA) – now known as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – highlighted in October 2015 that online verification of UC claimants was a “major driver” for the expected staff cost savings of the new benefits scheme.
The document said the UC target operating model had a “core assumption” that Verify would deliver 90% compliance for online identity checking, a figure based on plans from the Government Digital Service, (GDS), which develops Verify.
However, Computer Weekly revealed last month that currently only 35% of UC users can set up a Verify account online, 30% are not able to, and the remaining 35% could use Verify but do not. Use of Verify is vital to the full UC digital service due to be rolled out to Jobcentres nationwide by the end of this year.
If the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is unable to achieve targets for online identity verification, it is likely to place an extra workload on Jobcentre staff for face-to-face identity hecks, meaning much higher running costs than anticipated. If only 35% of benefit claimants successfully use Verify, it could mean hundreds of thousands of people requiring additional help to apply.
The MPA report revealed such concerns were being discussed in 2015.
“If Verify is not suitable, and additional F2F [face to face] verification is required for UC, this will have a material effect on the business plan. Further, claimants’ willingness to identify online has not yet been tested at scale,” it said.
Read more about Gov.uk Verify
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The MPA was already worried in 2015 that Verify would not be able to deliver. “The review team heard feedback that confidence in this solution [Verify] being available is very low,” said the project review.
“The programme is therefore making a more cautious assumption of 40% online verifications. And there is work ongoing on an alternative solution... This might take [about] two years but the timeline aligns with volume requirements.”
In the end, DWP developed its own system, called Prove Your Identity, to complement Verify. The combined systems are achieving a 50% verification rate for users.
Verify has been widely criticised for its poor performance – at the time of writing, the system was achieving only a 44% completion rate for users attempting to prove their identity online, according to government figures. Only 40% of users who successfully register with Verify are subsequently able to access a digital service.
Despite the warnings during Universal Credit – and the ongoing performance issues – GDS last year committed to having 25 million Verify users by 2020, as part of the Government Transformation Strategy.
The original Verify business case, signed off in 2015, was based on achieving the 90% success rate quoted to DWP for its use on Universal Credit.
The forecast cost savings from Verify in the business case further assumed that, by 2019/20, it would be adopted by 80% of the 77 digital public services identified as the likeliest users of the tool, with 95% of citizens accessing those digital services using Verify – and with 90% of those people able to successfully establish their identity.
Services using Verify
Currently, only 16 online services use Verify, including Universal Credit.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Completion rates for Gov.uk Verify and Universal Credit have been gradually increasing. We are continuing to work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to strengthen the partnership between Gov.uk Verify and Universal Credit.”
The UC project reviews were published by DWP this week following a six-year campaign by IT programme manager and freedom-of-information campaigner John Slater for their release. The department finally relented after MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee were given copies of the reviews to analyse, releasing a summary in February 2018.
The reviews were only provided to MPs after the House of Commons ordered DWP to do so following a vote in December 2017. The department continued to insist the full reports should remain confidential, until making a U-turn on the decision this week.
Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey said in a written statement that although she believes UC “does not lack scrutiny”, she sees “no point in continuing to argue” the case to keep the documents out of the public eye.