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Experts slam government digital ID response

TechUK panel members say the government’s response to its digital identity consultation provides no concrete plan for moving forward

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Experts have criticised the government’s long-awaited response to its 2019 digital identity call for evidence, which sought views on future policy, for lacking in any actionable outcome.

The experts, speaking on a TechUK panel last week (4 September), said that while there is little to disagree with in the response, it severely lacks in detail.  

The consultation on digital identity was launched in July 2019 and was completed the following September. The government response was due to be unveiled by the end of 2019, but was subsequently delayed until spring this year – and was only released earlier this month.

Despite the long wait, the panel members found it lacked clear actions and outcomes on how to move forward with digital identity. One of the panel members, Liberal Democrat Tim Clement-Jones, former chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on artificial intelligence, said he shared the “frustration of many on reading the government’s response”.

“There is nothing even approaching a concrete plan here,” he said. “Are we going to have a green paper and then a white paper and then a draft bill and then legislation? We’ve actually got a huge amount of consensus as a result of that call to evidence process. We need a concrete plan towards that, and there is no concrete plan.”

He added that although it’s great that the government is focusing on standards, it’s easy to get “lost in the weeds of standards”. He said that there needs to be a way of accrediting different digital identity systems in a way which means you can have “various different standards” and ensure the accreditation system understands that even if you use a different technology and conform to a different set of international standards, you can have the government “kite mark”.

The response also promised the creation of a new Digital Identity Strategy Board, which will oversee plans to update laws and develop new consumer protection legislation to support the use of digital identities across the UK. The board will also ensure that suitable privacy and technical standards are in place to allow interoperability and establish individuals’ rights over the use of their digital IDs, according to the response.

Questions to answer

Clement-Jones said he really doesn’t “know what the Digital Identity Strategy Board is all about. Is it an action-oriented body, or is it just going to pronounce on various things,” he questioned, adding that “commitment to having a single point where this agenda is being driven is absolutely crucial”.

Another panel member, Frank Joshi, CEO of  digital identity tech supplier Mvine, was also critical of the government’s long-awaited response. “It’s lacking in any actionable outcome and there’s no substance to it,” he said. “If it was something that was prepared 10 years ago, fantastic, we could all applaud. But 10 years on, I’m afraid it’s not good enough. We’re at the dawn of the next evolution of the internet; getting identity infrastructure right is so critical.”

He added that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has found that the UK’s digital sector is worth £400m a day to the UK economy, and as such, it should be taken seriously.

“If we were to turn it around and say what was its response to the question that even from the DCMS’s point of view, the digital sector is worth £400m a day and it is worth up to 7.7% of the UK economy? Does that response to the consultation with the commercial world answer those questions? The answer is, woefully, it does not,” he said.

“Nothing in the document that says they’ve actually listened to the commercial market on how to drive this forward,” added Joshi. “We’re all hanging our heads down in shame on behalf of the government because it’s pitiful, it really is, that we are at this point in time and we’re not doing something seriously about it.

“There is no strategy, there’s no cross-department discussion, so it’s a bit like the Wild West, where people are building different train lines with different gauges. Digital identity is being adopted, it’s being developed out there in the world, but we’re not going to have something that can be reused by the citizen.

“What that means is a lot of people will be potentially excluded from society and will create a two-tier society as a consequence of not getting this right.”

Uncertainty around Gov.uk Verify

Joshi added that the private sector has been told by government that at some stage, they will be able to provide services to the public sector, as the troubled Gov.uk Verify scheme winds down.

The Verify project began in 2013 with the aim of becoming the government’s flagship digital identity programme, which would be used across government, and eventually also the private sector.

However, despite spending £175m on it, the government struggled to get uptake from departments, and a decision was made in 2018 to end funding for the programme in April 2020. However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the Treasury has given the government a further 18 months of funding.

Joshi said that there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the end of Verify.

“When is that exactly going to be phased out? What is the migration plan from the existing 20-odd government departments to any new private sector consortium or consortiums to pick that up? Where is the strategy,” he said, adding that several government departments are “going off and doing their own thing” because there isn’t something collectively being done.

Read more about government technology

  • Long-awaited response to July 2019 consultation highlights private sector demands for digital identity support from government.
  • The UK’s digital economy is desperately in need of a viable digital identity strategy - to recover from the pandemic, the government cannot wait any longer to resolve this much-delayed issue.
  • TechUK calls on government to make digital identity a focus of its digital strategy as the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the “urgent need” for digital IDs. 

Former Labour MP and now executive director of Digital Identity Net, Chuka Umunna, said that you have to judge government according to the goals they set, and the initial aim was to have around 46 departments using Verify, and 25 million users by this year.

“On both counts, obviously, the government has failed to deliver, even in the context of Covid, when arguably it would spur more people using Verify,” he said. “They haven’t even reached 10 million users. That’s perhaps not surprising, because government doesn’t have a great record in delivering big digital projects.”

On the government response to the consultation in general, Umunna said he thought it was a “question of priorities” and that there is “no plan of action, no timeframes and an absolute lack of detail”.

He added that the response should have engaged with the issue of the economy and how digital identity could benefit the UK economy as a whole, because that is ultimately “the route for ministers to be able to act on this”.

“The problem that we’ve got is almost that [there is no] proper political direction,” he said.

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