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Projections set for the Gov.uk Verify platform were “hopelessly optimistic” in its original business case, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard this week.
The system’s architects the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Cabinet Office faced questions around themes ranging from cost to poor performance in an inquiry aimed at investigating the issues around its flagship digital identity system and the £154m spent so far.
Civil service chief executive John Manzoni, Kevin Cunnington, director general at GDS, and former Verify boss Nic Harrison, now director of design, planning and architecture at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), were challenged by MPs over indications that Verify would not meet its targets, as well as decisions taken to continue and the future plan once public funding stops in 2020.
When justifying the expectations for Verify in its 2015 business case, Manzoni said its creators expected a faster pace of transformation would happen across government services.
“There is no question but that that was optimistic, and it is not as if people were blind about it,” said Manzoni, adding that there was also an element of attempting to assert that volume could be built by telling departments to use Verify.
“I fully hold my hands up that we were a bit slow in intervening in that, because I don’t think the incentives for government departments were helpful for it, for perfectly good reasons, because they had not transformed their services and because there was a start-up problem of cost,” said Manzoni.
While Cunnington justified the low uptake by saying that there weren’t enough adopting services, Manzoni confirmed PAC chair Meg Hiller’s affirmation that the project was “over-optimistic from the beginning”.
Later in the hearing, Manzoni illustrated his point of over-optimism by pointing out the mood was similar around Universal Credit in its early days and that today, the government “knows a lot more” about the pace of digital transformation.
“Increasing realism, of course, makes it difficult to sit here and argue and justify, but back then, there were lots of examples of where we thought that we would go faster than we actually have done,” said Manzoni.
“You can digitise services, but it is a lot harder to fundamentally transform them to enable the Verify access.”
Harrison said that after he joined GDS in October 2016, he identified problems with the project and made 11 recommendations for Verify.
“I think my report said directly that Verify was not on a glide path to success, so we needed to intervene and do things,” he said. “I made a number of recommendations, many of which we took into action.”
Recommendations after sign-off
Committee member Gareth Snell pointed out that Harrison’s recommendations came very soon after a revised business case was signed off – and yet those recommendations effectively identified issues with that business case.
“In October 2016, the business case was signed off by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. You [Harrison] came in after October and said that actually you had 11 recommendations,” said Snell.
“At what point did you have a conversation with the additional suppliers to say, ‘Actually, the business case that we now have, to service the demand that we have signed up for you to deliver, will not materialise’?”
Harrison and Manzoni confirmed such a conversation never took place.
The PAC investigation follows an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) that argued the government's decision to stick with Verify has not been sufficiently justified. The government spending watchdog also found that it was unable to replicate or validate the financial benefits the GDS had initially estimated for the system.
Verify’s success in its actual purpose is also a constant source of disappointment, with very poor monthly average rates for completed identification. For example, 56% of people who tried to create an identity through the system were unable to do so as of October last year.
The Cabinet Office announced in October 2018 that government would stop funding Verify in March 2020, with funding capped to £21.5m until then. When funding ceases, GDS’s intention is for the private sector to take over responsibility for the project.
A group of five commercial identity providers – which currently hold a monopoly on digital IDs for the public services that use Verify – will take on identity verification under 18-month contracts.
At the time the government announced its plans to hand over Verify to the private sector, the UK’s digital identity community reacted positively despite the system’s poor performance, which would arguably make the commercial offering inviable.
GDS remains convinced the system can and will become the foundation for a standardised approach to federated digital identity by next year and that the multimillion-pound investment in the platform so far will have been justified if that aim is achieved.