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Gov.uk Verify sees surge during Covid-19 outbreak but remains unachievable

The government's flagship identity service and over half of the 26 major IT projects led by the government bear highest risks and are unlikely to be completed, according to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

The government's flagship digital identity service Gov.UK Verify and a key IT sourcing initiative led by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) are on the list of mega-projects led by the UK government which bear the greatest risk and lowest likelihood of completion.

The annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) encompasses the largest and highest-risk projects led by the UK government. These projects typically require approval from HM Treasury, because of their high budgets or because the initiatives might be novel, complex, contentious or even require new legislation.

The 125 programmes in the government major projects portfolio (GMPP) considered in the latest IPA report have a total cost to the taxpayer of £448bn, delivered by 16 departments and arm's-length bodies. The IPA report offers a delivery confidence assessment under five categories, from Red to Green, which provide an indication of the likelihood of completion as well as associated risk.

Information technology and communications (ICT) projects, as well as transformation and service delivery initiatives - which include a number of digital projects led by the NHS - have more projects flagged as Red/Amber or Red than last year. Over half (14) of the 26 major ICT projects are Red or Red/Amber, which is an increase of four projects on last year.

Verify and the DHSC IT infrastructure sourcing programme are among the 11 projects rated Red - the highest level of difficult and challenging projects the IPA has listed over the last eight years.

According to the report, "The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of technology and the UK’s reliance upon it." It added that "developing and embracing cutting-edge technology" continues to be a key theme of the GMPP portfolio.

"We have much more to do. Nothing short of world-class project delivery will do", said Nick Smallwood, chief executive at the IPA, in the report's foreword.

The DHSC project flagged as one of the ICT initiatives unlikely to be delivered, aims to implement a mix of internal and external supplier towers and a strengthened retained IT organisation.

On Verify, the IPA noted that despite the difficulties surrounding the project and the Red status, there was a significant increase in demand for government services using digital identity, particularly due to a surge in Universal Credit applications in the early weeks of lockdown. This presented a short-term dependency on Verify due to the Covid-19 outbreak and prompted HM Treasury to extend Verify operations up to the end of September 2021.

According to the report, demand for Verify services saw a spike at the start of the pandemic, with 300,000 new identities created in the second half of March alone, compared to an average of about 35,000 per week prior to the pandemic. The unexpected surge in demand also meant a a budget variance of 497% for the project, with forecast spend of £17.9m towards a whole-life cost of £206.1m.

According to a statement provided by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in April 2020, the government is also taking steps to "bolster the resilience of the service which is facing an unprecedented level of usage." 

This is the second year in a row that Verify was deemed unachievable. However, the IPA credited the Government Digital Service for progress around the programme's objectives, such as the appointment of a senior responsible officer and a new board for Verify, as well as securely running the system, on which 22 online government systems rely.

Other projects flagged Red include the Local Full Fibre Networks project led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which aims to stimulate greater commercial investment in full-fibre broadband networks across the UK to deliver faster and more reliable connectivity. The Rural Gigabit Connectivity Programme, also led by DCMS, which aims to test and deploy broadband in remote areas, also falls under the "unlikely to deliver" category.

IPA project ratings

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority rates major projects on the following colour-coded scale:

Green - Successful delivery of the project on time, budget and quality appears highly likely and there are no major outstanding issues that at this stage appear to threaten delivery significantly.

Amber/Green - Successful delivery appears probable; however, constant attention will be needed to ensure risks do not materialise into major issues threatening delivery.

Amber - Successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun.

Amber/Red - Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.

Red - Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed.

Among the initiatives that are within the Amber/Red range but still appear feasible despite issues that require management attention is GP IT Futures, a new procurement framework that will replace the General Practice Systems of Choice (GPSoC) to create a supplier platform that will underpin the requirements set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.

Complex projects that are still within the Amber range but yet not approaching Red include a programme led by the Home Office to deliver digital services at the border, as well as UnITy, a multi-year programme to replace all of the ICT services at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

On the Defra programme, the IPA noted there are several risks resulting from the inherently complex nature of the project of implementing in a multi-supplier environment while EU exit considerations are still being managed. The report noted that the programme prioritised providing new Windows 10 devices for EU exit programme new joiners.

Other recent IT developments for Defra within the UnITy plan noted in the IPA report include the immediate, medium and long term requirements in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. This has led to elements of current deployments being reprioritised to support remote working arrangements across the Defra estate covering about 21,000 users.

Many projects across the four categories that GMPP projects fall under have significant digital components, with three initiatives that are directly related to technology. The largest of the four is infrastructure and construction, the biggest GMPP category in terms of taxpayer spend, at £214bn in total life cost. These are typically lengthier projects and include the 5G testbeds and trials programme.

The ICT category, which includes Verify, is the smallest by number of projects under the GMPP and includes major upgrades of legacy IT systems. There are 27 ICT projects in the portfolio, at a total life cost of £8bn and average length of seven years.

The transformation and service delivery projects encompass a wide range of NHS initiatives such as the health service's website and other digital services. The transformation category is the largest by project category, with 34 projects of average length of six years, which may or may not include a significant IT component, at a whole life cost of £64bn.

Transformation and service delivery projects contain the most initiatives with confidence in delivering successfully. These are mostly flagged Amber/Green or Green, with a total of 10 out of 34 projects (29%). ICT has the lowest proportion, with two Amber/Green and no Green ratings out of 26 projects (8%).

Projects that are on track to be delivered include Making Tax Digital (MTD), a tax digitisation project led by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) with the aim of reducing fraud. At its core, the initiative has the requirement for businesses to use digital record-keeping systems and submit tax return data directly from those records using MTD-compatible software.

According to the IPA report, more than 1.4 million businesses have signed up for MTD as of May 2020. More than five million VAT returns have been submitted through the service, including over 280,000 smaller VAT businesses.

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