Patryk Kosmider - Verify has 'failed users' and its leaders lack accountability, say MPs

Public Accounts Committee slams government's flagship digital identity service after a ‘catalogue of problems’

The government’s flagship digital identity service is “failing its users”, has not delivered value for money, and its leaders have not accepted “proper accountability” for the troubled programme, say MPs.

The Verify system has been “hampered by a catalogue of problems”, with many users unable to access the government services they wanted, according to a highly critical report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Project owners the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service (GDS) set over-optimistic expectations and failed to meet targets, said the report, and the system has “simply not delivered”.

The report is the latest in a growing list of criticisms for Verify, following a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report that revealed GDS had been forced to cut the forecast benefits by 75%, and an Infrastructure and Projects Authority review last year that recommended the programme be terminated.

“Three years after Verify was introduced, the system is failing its users and struggling to meet key targets. Key government departments do not want to use the system and members of the public are facing problems signing up,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier.

“Once again, the government has not delivered on a project that was over-ambitious from the start. The government has now decided to stop public funding to Verify in 2020. Before then, it has a duty to get this programme working properly for existing users, such as people claiming Universal Credit, and set out a plan of action for when public funding ends.”

The committee has ordered GDS to provide further details of how it intends to deal with the failings identified by the MPs, before government adjourns for the summer recess. The areas the PAC wants GDS to address include:

  • The lessons GDS has learned from the failure of the Verify programme, and what steps it is taking to prevent similar failures in future.
  • A detailed plan for how Verify’s services will be maintained after 2020, including how government services using Verify will be protected from unaffordable cost increases.
  • The urgent action GDS will take to clarify the value of Verify’s intellectual property, to protect the interests of taxpayers.

The report was particularly critical of the leadership of the Verify programme, which PAC said was “characterised by poor decision-making by the Cabinet Office and GDS” and “compounded by their failure to take proper accountability”.

Verify has been reviewed more than 20 times, but still PAC noted that the key witnesses to its inquiry, including GDS director general Kevin Cunnington and Cabinet Office permanent secretary John Manzoni, did “not take seriously enough their responsibilities to explain and account for why the programme failed to meet its original goal”.

The report said: “It is simply not good enough to rewrite the programme’s aims after the event to try to explain away underperformance.”

Despite the MPs’ observations, GDS continues to insist that Verify is a success and its decision to hand the programme to the private sector after March 2020 will justify the expenditure, which is likely to exceed £175m.

“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,” said a Cabinet Office spokesperson.

“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.”

The biggest customer for Verify is Universal Credit (UC), the controversial Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefit reform programme. However, only 38% of UC applicants can successfully use Verify when claiming benefits, compared to a target of 90% in the original business plan. As a result, DWP expects to spend around £40m over 10 years on processing applications for Universal Credit manually.

The committee told GDS that by summer recess, it needs to explain “what changes are being made to Verify to better support people claiming Universal Credit”, and with DWP should “agree and set specific targets for the number of people they aim to get applying for Universal Credit through Verify”.

“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,” said the report.

“Only 19 government services have adopted Verify, fewer than half the number expected. Only 3.9 million people have signed up as Verify users, less than one-sixth of the forecast 25 million users by 2020. Some of the most vulnerable people using the system, such as those applying for Universal Credit, are among the worst affected.”

The committee also echoed the NAO’s doubts about GDS’s claim of an estimated £366m of benefits delivered by Verify.

“We are sceptical about the validity of benefits claimed, given that the National Audit Office could not replicate the benefits using data supplied by GDS. An unknown amount of costs have been shunted onto other government departments, such as the costs of reconfiguring their systems to use Verify and additional manual processing costs for people unable to use Verify,” said the report.

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