Flagship GOV.UK Verify service set to go live — but GDS vows no "big bang" disruption

Written by Matt Foster on 20 May 2016 in News

Online verification service passes service assessment, as Janet Hughes vows to listen and learn as scheme is introduced across departments

A major new government digital service designed to make it easier for citizens to confirm their identity online is set to go live next week, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has announced, as the programme's director stressed the need for a "gradual, careful" roll-out.

GOV.UK Verify is one of several new platforms being developed by the Government Digital Service as part of its Government-as-a-Platform strategy.

It aims to cut out face-to-face verification work for departments, by allowing citizens to prove who they are online just once — and then use that identity across a range of government services. 

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The service has so far been trialled across ten services in six departments, including the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, HMRC, and the Department for Work and Pensions.

In a speech this week, Hancock said he was “delighted to announce that GOV.UK Verify has passed its service assessment and will go live next week”.

He added: “Verify allows secure and straightforward identity checking without the need for an identity database — and underpins the digital transformation of government. I want to thank the Verify team for their innovative, determined and dedicated work.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a project of Verify’s scale, trials of the new identity system have not gone without setbacks.

GDS had hoped to use Verify for its digital overhaul of the Rural Payments Agency’s system for paying EU subsidies to farmers. 

"It will be a gradual, careful, ongoing process, not a ‘big bang’ switchover" - Verify programme director Janet Hughes

But the National Audit Office spending watchdog last year found that it “quickly became apparent that Verify was not sufficiently developed to assure the identity of a significant proportion of farmers, and did not therefore work as the department expected”.

The RPA eventually ditched its digital platform in favour of a “paper-assisted” model — and MPs on the Public Accounts Committee criticised the use of the agricultural payment scheme as a “digital testing ground”. 

Meanwhile HMRC said last year that Verify was partly to blame for difficulties faced by couples looking to take advantage of the government’s marriage tax break.

But, writing on her blog, Verify’s programme director Janet Hughes sought to reassure users and departments about the switch from beta to live.

“It won’t be a dramatic change in what GOV.UK Verify looks like, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’ve finished developing the service,” she said.

“It means we’ve met the standard required of digital by default services — rightly a tough standard to meet. Users can be assured that GOV.UK Verify is safe, secure, easily improved and meets user needs.

“It means we’re ready for larger-scale adoption by departments - we’ve got a lot of services in our pipeline preparing to start using GOV.UK Verify over the next year (it will be a gradual, careful, ongoing process, not a ‘big bang’ switchover) and we’ll be posting more about that shortly.”

Hughes said GDS would continue work to “iterate and improve” the service in response to feedback, and said her team would 
“carry on working as hard as ever once we’re live to make the service as simple and straightforward as possible for users”. 

As well as Verify, GDS has unveiled plans for a common GOV.UK payments platform, which officials say will act as a “broker” and “marketplace” between government services and the payments industry. GDS hopes GOV.UK Pay will drive down costs and spare  departments from having to implement their own systems for taking payments from the public.

GOV.UK Notify, meanwhile, aims to cut inbound calls to departments by proactively notifying citizens through text message, emails and postal alerts.

New data guidance for policymakers

Hancock’s announcement came as he sought to ease public fears about the government’s use of data, with new guidance to policymakers which he said would “unlock the progressive power of data science to improve lives”.

The Cabinet Office’s Ethical Science Data Framework, drawn up with government alongside civil society groups, industry and academics, sets out six principles for civil servants dealing with data, including being “alert to public perceptions” and being as “open and accountable as possible”.

The document says: “Public attitudes to data are changing. Working with data in a way that makes the public feel uneasy, without adequate transparency or engagement, could put your project at risk and also jeapordise other projects across government.

It adds: “Consideration of public attitudes and communication with them is key: most people are data pragmatists if told how society will benefit and how risks are managed.”

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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