By Tony Collins
Will £154m spent on Verify be wasted because Sir Humphrey doesn’t like its creator, the Government Digital Service?
Verify is a system millions of people use to confirm they are who they say they are. It is used mainly for claiming Universal Credit but was intended as a cross-government identify system.
This week Verify was the subject of a National Audit Office report. BBC News and other news media had similar headlines:
“Verify: Inquiry criticises government ID scheme.”
- Verify was supposed to have 25m users by 2020 and now the estimate is 5.4m.
- Verify was supposed to be used for Universal Credit but only 1/3 of claimants are able verify their identity online. This means the DWP may need to spend £40m on manually verifying claimants identities.
- The government will stop funding Verify next year and the scheme will move to the private sector (Barclays, Digidentity, Experian, Post Office and secureidentity/Morpho), which will leave departments that currently don’t pay the full costs having to pay market rates.
The National Audit Office concluded that Verify is “an example of many of the failings in major programmes that we often see, including optimism bias and failure to set clear objectives”. It added,
“It is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified.”
Verify seems to be a £154m disaster. But is it?
Gary Barnett, a chief analyst at GlobalData, said,
“Verify’s woes aren’t so much down to a lack of technical nous as a lack of political ambition. As long as big government departments feel able to plough their own furrow there will never be a single standard for identity across UK government.”
It’s hard to build a government ID system that is easy to use and provably secure.
A 100% secure system is one nobody uses; and the easiest system to use is one with no security. A government ID system has to get the balance right: easy to use and resistant to fraud. Verify worked well when I used it.
The question not being asked about Verify is whether some senior civil servants in departments are trying to kill off the scheme because it is a cross-government initiative that dilutes their autonomy and, worse, is built by the much-unloved Government Digital Service, a user-centric organisation that was set up in 2011 and run on non-hierarchical lines by IT professionals who had not come up through the ranks of the civil service.
Top people at GDS in its formative years were different – not the usual life-long civil servants. They were not innately secretive. They were opposed to single supplier mega IT contracts. They believed in learning from mistakes and moving on. They were keen to stop IT in government being seen as a barrier instead of a tool. They focused on the user’s needs instead of the department’s.
Understandably, the Sir Humphreys never liked GDS.
Indeed the National Audit Office report has the extraordinary revelation that some departments refused to pay GDS’s invoices for the Verify service.
The NAO said,
“Moreover, most departments have not paid the Cabinet Office and GDS even for subsidised services. HMRC has paid £6.7m for its Verify usage, but between 2016-17 and 2018-19 no other department paid for using Verify, despite being issued invoices by the Cabinet Office.
“It is unclear why some departments have not paid these invoices.”
Hardly surprising that GDS leaders in the early years – all of them – soon left the civil service, perhaps because they could not acclimatise to its rigid conventions.
Sir Humphrey has indeed had the last word. GDS is not what it was: its culture has been blended into the civil service. Its numbers have more than trebled to around 850 people and its influence across government is limited, to some extent, to that of a standards-setting body that is known for its creation and continuing support of GOV.UK.
GDS’s job applications are now worded in abstract, platitudinous officialise. GDS is a part of government, almost a department in its own right.
Even the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which is run along Sir Humphrey’s secretive lines, has seemed to dislike GDS and particularly Verify. It has long wanted to kill off the scheme.
Well done Sir Humphrey. You have won the battle to ensure that a new organisation not run on conventional civil service lines merges into the culture it originally avoided. Even if Verify is not dead, the innovative open-minded ground-breaking influence of GDS certainly is.
[So pervasive is Sir Humphrey’s influence on government IT, that “to Sir Humphrey” has now become a verb.]
Thank you to FOI campaigner David Orr for his emailed alerts on Verify