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UK government’s new digital identity system to cost up to £400m

Cabinet Office is seeking £300m-£400m in funding to build its replacement for the failed Gov.uk Verify system, which itself cost over £220m

The Cabinet Office is planning to ask for up to £400m to fund its latest digital identity programme over the next three years.

Computer Weekly has learned that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has estimated the costs of the “One Login for Government” programme to build a new cross-government single sign-on system as £300m-£400m. But that budget must be fought for as part of the Treasury’s forthcoming spending review, which will determine how much money Whitehall departments will receive for the remainder of this Parliament. 

The One Login programme aims to combine single sign-on with identity verification and the Gov.uk Accounts online personalisation tool, to develop a system that can be used across the Gov.uk website.

The new digital identity system will also replace the failed Gov.uk Verify system, which had already cost more than £220m before it was extended for a further two years from April 2021, to allow time for One Login to be built.

The Treasury also gave a year’s funding worth £32m to GDS for Gov.uk Accounts in the short-term spending round that took place during the height of the pandemic last year.

The spending to date on Verify does not include money spent by other departments to develop their own digital identity system because of the problems with Verify. Some observers suggest that, if the funding for One Login is approved, the government could end up spending close to £1bn on digital identity over 10 years.

If successful, One Login will be considered as critical national infrastructure, and will provide a standard way for citizens to prove their identity and log in to all government systems running on Gov.uk. However, the ultimate decision on whether or not to use One Login will rest with individual departments – although Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove wrote to all departments earlier this year to suggest the system will be mandatory.

Many departments already have standalone digital identity systems in development – Computer Weekly is aware of at least 10 projects under way across the public sector. Cabinet Office estimates suggest there are 44 different ways to log in to applications running on Gov.uk, with 190 different systems where citizens may have to re-enter the same data. Buy-in from government departments will be a key factor in determining whether the proposed One Login funding will be achieved.

The new system is being developed in the cloud, running on Amazon Web Services.

The project will be run by a new director of digital identity, Natalie Jones, who took up the role at GDS this month. Jones was previously at the Home Office, where she was the digital lead on the EU Settlement Scheme and, most recently, delivery director on the Digital Services at the Border programme.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Our single sign-on programme will make accessing public services online much easier. Whether it’s renewing your passport, applying for a driving licence or registering the birth of a child, citizens want services to be easily accessible and simple to use.

“Work in this area is progressing well and is currently going through the design, build and testing phase.”

One of the major differences between One Login and its troubled predecessor is that Verify was designed to minimise the amount of personal identity data that could be collected by government. The new ID system, however, is designed to collect users’ identity and behavioural data as they move around the Gov.uk estate.

In a recent blog post, GDS product lead Cantlin Ashrowan said this approach will make Gov.uk a much better experience for its users.

“Logging in to Gov.uk will let users bring together the information and services most relevant to them and make it easier to keep track of what they’re doing with different parts of government,” he said. “A Gov.uk Account could, with permission, suggest what services a person might need next, show them services they are eligible for, and even notify them when policy changes affect them.

“This gets to the heart of how the single sign-on and the Gov.uk Account work together: the single sign-on will provide an easy way for users to sign in from any part of Gov.uk, then the account will make the experience of Gov.uk better for those who are signed in.”

However, the central collection of user data that One Login will enable is likely to prove controversial among privacy campaigners. In 2019, plans to centrally collect and analyse anonymous web analytics data caused a brief uproar.

The Cabinet Office plans are separate from the work under way in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for a digital identity trust framework that will offer a “trust mark” to private-sector products for use across the wider economy. Although the One Login system will conform to the standards laid down as part of the framework, it is unclear whether private-sector ID products that gain approval will be accepted for accessing online public services.

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