A digital identity crisis: is slow progress costing citizens and business?

A steel padlock on a brown wooden gate

By Steven McGinty

The government’s flagship digital identity programme, GOV.UK Verify, has not been short of problems lately. However, news that benefit claimants have been unable to register for the new Universal Credit (UC) because of problems using the service highlight that its failings are having real-world consequences.

In February, government statistics showed that only 30% of claimants were able to use GOV.UK Verify – well below the projected 80%. Further, research in the London Borough of Croydon found that even with one-to-one support only one in five people could prove their identity.

A history of problems

Problems were identified in the National Audit Office’s Digital transformation in government report in March 2017. The NAO found that the service, which was expected to simplify how citizens verified their identity to government agencies, had missed its initial launch date of 2012. Instead, only nine out of twelve services had been launched four years later in 2016.

Government departments who were expected to come on board have also thought twice. In December 2017, NHS England’s chief digital officer Juliet Bauer announced that they’d be developing their own digital identity system (although did suggest that GOV.UK Verify may be used for services which have less sensitive information). Similarly, HMRC announced last month that they will develop their own identity service – based on their 15-year-old Government Gateway Service – with rumours suggesting they have no confidence in the government’s solution.

With this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that Civil Service Chief Executive and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni has brought in management consultancy McKinsey to conduct a review into how digital identity could work within the public sector.

Community Weekly’s Editor in chief, Bryan Glick, suggests this review could lead to a fundamental rethink and the introduction of ‘Verify Compliant’. He explains that:

Verify could become a brand name, rather than a product produced by GDS. That brand name will encapsulate a set of digital identity standards, for use across the public and private sectors. If you want to be part of the UK’s digital identity infrastructure, you need a product that is “Verify compliant”.

The impact of Brexit

David Bicknell, editor at Government Computing, suggests that Brexit preparations have pushed the transformation strategy – including GOV.UK Verify – off the agenda.

However, Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington has a different take on things. In his view, the GDS is continuing to deliver improved digital services, highlighting that GOV.UK Verify is available to local councils and is used by the Land Registry to support their new digital mortgage service.

Why the UK needs to tackle digital identity

People are increasingly using digital services to shop online, pay bills, and to interact with different levels of government. However, even though technology has dramatically changed, much of how people prove their identity is still paper based. For instance, paperless bank account holders still have to request paper documents to prove their address (possibly at an additional cost).

New industries such as the sharing economy, which includes the likes of Airbnb and Uber, rely on secure digital identity verification. Government has a responsibility to lead from the front and protect this ever-growing number of customers. For example, Airbnb customers across the world have experienced thefts from properties from criminals using false identification.

More generally, there has been a rise in identity fraud. According to fraud prevention charity Cifas, this now represents the majority of all fraud cases (approximately 56% in the first six months of 2017). An inability to verify identity is likely to have contributed to this increase.

In addition, many people are financially and socially excluded by a lack of photographic identification ID such as a passport or a driver’s license – particularly those from low income backgrounds or who have been in prison. This lack of ID can act as a barrier when applying for government benefits or financial services.

Gunnar Nordseth, CEO at digital identity provider Signicat, also argues that a failure to introduce a digital identity scheme could have serious consequences for the UK’s financial industry (especially the emerging fintech sector). He explains that GOV.UK Verify isn’t ‘fatally flawed’ but needs to be more ambitious, observing that:

Unlike other European digital ID schemes GOV.UK Verify is limited to the public sector, does not support financial services and is not interoperable with its continental counterparts.”

Final thoughts

Tackling the digital identity crisis won’t be easy. But recent statements acknowledging the challenges of GOV.UK Verify and the calling of a review suggest the Government Digital Service (GDS) are listening to concerns.

However, this time for reflection mustn’t last too long. Getting digital identity right has the potential to improve services for citizens, create efficiencies in government and business, and ensure the UK’s place as a world leader in the burgeoning digital economy.


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If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles.

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