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The government’s troubled digital identity system, Gov.uk Verify, will not be taken up by any further online services, and existing users will need to find alternative solutions within 18 months, Computer Weekly has learned.
Verify was given a lifeline by HM Treasury last week, when Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove revealed that the system had been given funding for a further 18 months because of the coronavirus crisis. The budget for Verify ran out at the end of March, and no further cash was due to be available.
However, after the recent pandemic-related surge in applications for Universal Credit – which relies on Verify for identity assurance – the system was given a temporary reprieve.
But Computer Weekly has learned that the extension came with conditions from the Treasury about the future of Verify, which has already cost taxpayers at least £175m.
The Government Digital Service (GDS), which develops Verify, has been told it cannot add the system to any further online services beyond the 22 that currently use it. And GDS must ensure that all of those existing services are no longer solely dependent on Verify for digital identity by the end of the 18-month extension period.
GDS has also been told that no additional funding will be forthcoming – the Treasury has allowed extra spending, but stipulated that it has to come from existing budgets in the Cabinet Office or from the departments that use Verify.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Like many government projects, there are conditions attached to funding. We are in ongoing discussions across government to agree the future strategy and more information will be released in due course.”
The 18-month extension came about after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) saw more than 1.4 million people apply for Universal Credit in March and April. Claimants have to apply online and must prove their identity using Verify. As a result, more than 400,000 people set up a Verify account for the first time.
However, delays caused by Verify led to online queues in the tens of thousands, and even then, only 35% of people were able to set up a Verify account.
DWP has since tried to alleviate the bottleneck by allowing existing users of Government Gateway – the identity system that supports tax self-assessment – to bypass Verify when applying for Universal Credit.
In a blog post published today (7 March 2020), DWP CIO Simon McKinnon also revealed that the department has brought forward plans to introduce its own in-house developed digital identity system, known as Confirm your Identity – raising further questions about the use of Verify with Universal Credit in the longer term.
“Responding to measures to reduce face-to-face contact in jobcentres at this time, our Confirm your Identity team have also been able to successfully accelerate the development of the online ID verification solution, which was originally planned for September this year,” said McKinnon. “This is helping customers confirm their identity when making a Universal Credit claim – without the need to attend a jobcentre.”
Meanwhile, GDS has started to make progress on two other ongoing digital identity initiatives.
As part of its planning for the government’s future digital identity strategy, GDS has been working on a “trust framework” that aims to allow use of private sector ID systems within the public sector. Computer Weekly has learned that suppliers have now been sent a draft version of the framework for feedback.
The Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “As part of developing a wider digital identity strategy, we have been working with government stakeholders and the private sector to ensure that the future framework and its standards/rules work for government and businesses. We are sharing the draft documents to gather feedback, which is important to shape the next stage of our strategy; and all of which is in line with previous government commitments.”
Also, companies that last October registered an interest in taking part in a trial of using passport data to help assure digital identities have finally been told by GDS that their involvement has been confirmed. The pilot, which for the first time allows third parties outside of the Verify scheme to access the document checking service that is used by Verify, was due to begin last month. Suppliers have been told the project could start this month, but GDS said the start date is yet to be finalised.
“Following an initial review process, applicants have been offered a place on the trial,” said the Cabinet Office spokesperson. “There are still a number of stages to complete before companies will be confirmed publicly and the pilot will begin.”