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Tech sector calls on government to 'urgently' resolve delays in digital identity policy

Trade body TechUK has written privately to DCMS secretary of state to express industry frustrations and request ‘urgent needs’ are resolved to enable digital identity market in UK

Representatives of the UK tech sector have written privately to digital secretary Oliver Dowden to express the industry’s ongoing frustration with the slow progress and continued delays in the government’s digital identity policy, Computer Weekly has learned.

The letter, sent by Julian David, chief executive of trade body TechUK, highlights the benefits of digital identity to the UK’s economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic, and requests a response to the “urgent needs” of the sector.

Policy around digital identity has been affected by Whitehall in-fighting between the Cabinet Office, where the Government Digital Service (GDS) owns the troubled Gov.uk Verify programme, and Dowden’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which has policy responsibility for the wider digital economy.

A Digital Identity Unit (DIU), combining resources from GDS and DCMS, was announced in June last year but is not yet operational. A consultation on digital identity was launched in July 2019 and completed in September, but the government has not yet published any of the submissions or its response, despite promising to do so by the spring of 2020.

Plans to establish Verify as the basis for industry standards on interoperable digital IDs have foundered on the failure of the £206m programme, and subsequent instructions from HM Treasury to cease further roll-out by September 2021.

GDS is hoping to establish a successor project, the Identity and Attributes Exchange (IAX), as the basis for an industry standard, but the plan has met with scepticism from industry stakeholders.

“Enabling digital identity verification across all sectors would be a significant step towards introducing interoperable and reusable digital identities for use in both government and the private sector,” said the letter to Dowden, citing McKinsey figures suggesting digital identity could deliver GDP savings of 3% over 10 years.

“Resolving this digital identity problem also enables a much more productive digital economy, as we transition from many inefficient paper-based processes. It is therefore fundamental to the return of the UK to economic growth.”

The letter set out a series of “urgent needs”, including:

  • One central focus point for digital ID within government.
  • A detailed roadmap for the creation of a digital identity market.
  • Government commitment to remove legislative barriers, facilitate trust, share data with the private sector, and solve implementation issues.
  • Accelerate the creation of standards aligned with the technologies and practices used in the private sector, to enable competition for the provision of identities into the public sector.
  • Swift publication of the response to the DCMS consultation.
  • Inclusion of digital identity as an essential element of the Digital Strategy announced by Dowden in June.

A DCMS spokesperson said: "The UK has a thriving digital economy and we are committed to delivering a safe and fair digital identity strategy to underpin its future growth. We have consulted on proposals for its design and will outline the next steps shortly."

One senior industry executive, who asked to remain anonymous, said that government action on digital identity was well overdue.

“The UK technology industry has become deeply frustrated by the lack of leadership coming from government ministers, on what was an increasingly deep crisis holding back the secure digitisation of the British economy,” said the executive.

“This is a desperate appeal from leading tech companies to ask government to stop festering its own monopoly identity scheme Verify, and start enabling the private sector with scalable data access, so it can do its part to solve the obscene levels of digital fraud we are now seeing, by using assured digital ID.”

The original plan for Verify would have seen the programme handed to the private sector in April this year, with no further funding from government.

However, by that time all but two of the original nine third-party identity providers had withdrawn from the scheme, leaving just the Post Office and Digidentity – although in effect this is only one identity verification service because the Post Office acts as a reseller for Digidentity.

Industry frustration has grown over recent years as promises for a commercial strategy around Verify were unfulfilled, and performance of the system proved disappointing.

More than seven million accounts have now been set up on Verify, but the figures were significantly boosted by the surge in Universal Credit claims made as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

Only 22 online public services use Verify, and only 44% of people who attempt to set up a Verify identity are able to complete the registration process. For Universal Credit applicants, the success rate is even lower, around 35%.

Major users, such as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which runs Universal Credit, are already working on alternatives to Verify. Nine different digital identity systems are currently being set up across the public sector.

For the second year running, Whitehall’s major projects watchdog, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), recently gave Verify its highest “red” warning rating, meaning it considered the programme unachievable. In July 2018, an IPA review of Verify recommended the project be terminated, but GDS continued with its development.

In February 2019, TechUK published a report calling on government to “urgently” publish a digital identity policy.

“We see instances where companies which want to bring world-class solutions to UK users often struggle to get support, either due to a reluctance to innovate or lack of a joined-up approach from key public sector bodies,” said TechUK’s David at the time.

“Too often, tech companies encounter difficulties which delay or obstruct innovation. It is particularly frustrating to hear British companies do not experience these problems in other countries.”

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