Editorial

National Audit Office publishes withering report on Verify’s lack of delivery

At least £154m spent on a Digital Identity system that is now expected to deliver only 25% of the original anticipated benefits back to central government

Posted 5 March 2019 by

The performance of GOV.UK Verify has consistently been below the standards set out in each of its business cases, has fallen well short of its target of 25 million users by 2020 – and as a result, HMG has had to lower its estimates for the scheme’s financial benefits by a massive 75%.

The conclusions form part of the National Audit Office (NAO’s just published investigation into the Government Digital Service’s (GDS’s) GOV.UK Verify, the government’s identity verification platform, performance, costs and benefits.

Noting how Verify was intended to be a “flagship digital programme to provide identity verification services for the whole of government” when it began in 2014, the report concludes that “take-up of Verify had been undermined by its performance” and that “GDS had lost focus on the longer-term strategic case for the programme”.

The NAO points out that as recently as 2016, GDS “identified the following key targets and expectations for the platform”: 25 million people would use Verify by 2020, and 46 government services would be accessible through Verify by March 2018.

But – that just never happened. GDS has significantly revised down its estimated financial benefits by over £650 million for the period 2016-17 to 2019-20, from £873m to £217m. Government also continues to fund it centrally, although it announced in October 2018 that this would stop in March 2020. In 2016, GDS forecast that 25 million people would use Verify by 2020; but by February 2019, only 3.6m people had signed up for the service. If current trends continue, approximately 5.4m users will have signed up by 2020.

There’s also a money issue – out of seven departments invoiced for their use of Verify from 2016-17 only one department (HMRC) has paid. The total amount invoiced was £3.6m, of which £2 million is currently still outstanding, says the study, Investigation into Verify.

As a result, NAO has decided that, “The performance of Verify has consistently been below the standards set out in each of its business cases… GDS intended that Verify would be largely self-funding by the end of March 2018, but low take-up means that government continues to fund it centrally.”

‘Government has tried to tackle a unique and unusual problem’

NAO says that what we seem to have here is yet another failed big government IT project, essentially: “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.”

However, it does acknowledge that the project had a sensible original aim – to help citizens prove their identities, so they can securely access online government services such as Universal Credit or to claim a tax refund and how it relies on commercial organisations to verify people’s identities: “In many ways the Verify programme is an example of how government has tried to tackle a unique and unusual problem, adapting over time in response to lessons learnt and the changing nature of the external market… Government has identified fraud as a growing threat across the modern economy, both within and beyond the public sector, and that confidence in identity is an important element of protecting services and users. In an attempt to strengthen online identity while maintaining a high degree of privacy, GDS has helped to define standards, build the Verify platform, and develop the market of private sector identity providers.”

But delivery has been its downfall: “After struggling to build demand within the public sector for Verify, government has now decided to hand over control of Verify to providers from 2020 with the aim of encouraging its use for non-government services, to deliver wider benefits and build scale that may benefit government in the longer term through lower prices – [but] unfortunately, even in the context of GDS’s redefined objectives for the programme, it is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified.”

MPs agree, with the BBC this morning quoting Meg Hillier, chair of the influential House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, who slams Verify as “a textbook case of government’s over-optimism and programme-management failure.

“Despite spending at least £154m on Verify, only half the people that try to sign up are able to use it and take-up is much lower than expected.”

The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament, is independent of government with its work leading to audited taxpayer savings of £741m in 2017.

Note: We expect a full update on Verify’s progress at our upcoming Think Digital Identity For Government 2019 conference.