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Shadow Cabinet Office minister slams Verify for being ‘inefficient’

Labour’s Jon Trickett says the government’s identity assurance platform is a poor use of taxpayers’ money and is “being handled appallingly”

Labour MP and shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett has attacked the government’s controversial identity assurance platform for its low success rate, calling on the Conservative administration to rethink its approach.

Trickett’s comments came as he asked written parliamentary questions around the uptake figures for the Verify platform, which is intended to become the standard way for citizens to prove who they are when accessing public services online.

The uptake figures, which are already in the public domain, show that only 15 digital services use Verify, with an average of only 46% of people using those services being able to successfully create a verified identity. Of those who do manage to successfully create an ID, 37% on average are then able to access the digital service they want to use.

This is a far cry from the government’s original 2015 business case, which, according to documents seen by Computer Weekly earlier this year, planned for 90% of people being able to verify their identity online “with a 90% success rate by April 2016”.

The government has set an ambitious target of 25 million users by 2020 – but only about 1.5 million accounts have been set up so far.

Trickett told Computer Weekly that the Verify programme “is being handled appallingly”, adding: “Not only is it inefficient and clearly failing, it also brings into question the security of citizens and the accountability of public services.”

Commenting on the service’s low uptake, he said: “It has only 1.5 million users, who use it on average less than twice. Is that the first time to see how it works and the second time to see if it really is that bad? And what happens when that system is compromised? Cyber criminals would have access to people’s personal information. 

“Verify is designed as part of the Conservatives’ approach to public services – cut them, take away offices in communities or local government, and administrate what’s left online. The Tories have to radically rethink their approach to these systems.”

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According to Jerry Fishenden, former chairman of the Cabinet Office’s Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group, part of the reason for the difficulties in using the service is that even when users manage to obtain a Verify credential, they still encounter problems when trying to use it with the digital services.

“Departments often fail to match Verify data with the data they hold – no great surprise since government services typically hold citizens’ data in a different form to that used by the Verify commercial companies,” Fishenden wrote in an article for Computer Weekly earlier this year.

The 2015 business case for Verify predicted an annual saving of £71m by 2020, with running costs set at £37m. It also claimed a further saving of £263m by avoiding departments spending money on developing their own identity systems and using Verify instead.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said Verify has “already saved the taxpayer over £110m – more than double the amount it has cost to deliver”, adding: “We are committed to rolling out Verify and continue to work towards signing up 25 million users by 2020, making it easier for people to access the services they need.”

Calls for a review

Trickett is not the only one calling for a rethink of the Verify programme. Earlier this year, technologist Fishenden called for a reset of the programme, and rumours have recently been rife that  a review of Verify is in the works.

A National Audit Office report, published in March this year, also highlighted issues with Verify. It said the platform had been undermined by its performance, and that “GDS [Government Digital Service] has lost focus on the longer-term strategic case for the programme”.  

However, GDS continues to work on the platform’s roll-out, including launching several pilots with local councils.

Last month, GDS launched a new version of Verify that allows for identity assurance at a much lower level of security, known as LOA1 (level of assurance 1), which is effectively a username and password system with a few extra steps added on.

GDS hopes government departments and services that do not require the higher assurance level offered by Verify will use the new version instead, which it says will increase uptake of the system.

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