‘Poor decisions compounded by a failure to take accountability’: MPs' verdict on GOV.UK Verify
Public Accounts Committee criticises conception and rollout of scheme, and plan for its future
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a damning report on GOV.UK Verify.
MPs concluded that a project that began life with unrealistic ambitions has, ultimately, delivered a tool “that is not fit for purpose” and has consequently been shunned by government departments. The PAC report also criticised the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service for the current lack of any “meaningful plan” for the future of GDS once public funding for the product ceases next year.
The committee reached six conclusions, for each of which it made a recommendation.
The first finding was “GDS has failed to meet any of its original performance targets for Verify and vastly overestimated the benefits it could achieve”. MPs pointed to the huge disparity between the 25 million citizens that were forecast to be using the service by 2020, and the 4.15 million that are currently signed up.
In light of this shortfall, PAC has asked for the Cabinet Office to respond before parliament’s summer recess and provide detail on “the lessons it has learned from the failure of the Verify programme”.
The second conclusion of the report is that Verify’s users – particularly those making use of the platform to claim Universal Credit – have “been badly served by an onerous system that is not fit for purpose”.
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“Despite Universal Credit being Verify’s biggest customer, just 38% of Universal Credit claimants can successfully use Verify when applying for the benefit,” MPs added. “As well as being unfit for purpose, this is incurring extra costs for the taxpayer: the Department for Work & Pensions expects to spend around £40m over 10 years on processing applications for Universal Credit manually.”
GDS has been asked to write to the committee with plans of how it can make changes to Verify to help improve the service for benefit claimants. The digital agency has also been asked to work with the Cabinet Office and the DWP to set targets for increasing the number of people successfully using Verify to apply for Universal Credit.
The third of the committee’s findings is that the chief reason for Verify’s failure was “GDS’s inability to get buy-in from departments”. In the future, the committee recommends that a detailed plan to secure departmental support should be included by the Cabinet Office in the initial business case for all such cross-government programmes.
The fourth conclusion reached by PAC is that “Verify was characterised by poor decision making by the Cabinet Office and GDS, compounded now by their failure to take proper accountability”.
The committee added: “The programme lacked strong leadership and oversight, despite being subjected to over 20 internal and external reviews. The Cabinet Office permanent secretary said he was sorry the Cabinet Office did not intervene earlier. However, even now, the Cabinet Office and GDS are not taking proper accountability for the programme’s shortcomings.”
Any future project deemed to be at risk of failure should be subject to timely assessment by an accounting officer, MPs said. PAC should also be updated about the results of such assessments, they added.
Current number of registered users of Verify
Verification success rate
Number of government services using Verify
Savings facilitated by Verify, according to the Cabinet Office
Amount DWP expects to spend manually processing Universal Credit applications
Point at which government funding for Verify will cease
PAC ‘s penultimate conclusion is that there is currently “no meaningful plan… [for] how Verify will operate once public funding stops in 2020”. MPs have requested an update from GDS and the Cabinet Office providing a detailed plan for how Verify will be supported after it moves into private-sector management – including information on how existing government users will be “protected from unaffordable price increases”.
The final conclusion of the report is that the Cabinet Office and GDS have “given little thought to the value of this intellectual property, and how taxpayers’ investment in it would be recouped should private providers secure substantial profits from Verify in the future”.
The committee has encouraged government to “take urgent action to clarify” the intellectual property value inherent of the platform, and how taxpayers’ interests and investment can best be safeguarded.
Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Three years after GOV.UK Verify was introduced, the system is failing its users and struggling to meet key targets. Key government departments do not want to use the system and members of the public are facing problems signing up.
She added: “Once again, the Government has not delivered on a project that was over-ambitious from the start. This is a verdict the Public Accounts Committee are making all too often on large government projects.”
In response to the report, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Verify has saved taxpayers more than £300m and is a world-leading example of how to enable people to use services securely online. The PAC report reflects that this has been a challenging project - but challenges like these are to be expected when the Government is working at the forefront of new technology. Verify is now at a point where it can be taken forward by the private sector, so people will be able to safely and securely access both private and public online services.”