New GOV.UK Verify chief sets out stall after departure of Janet Hughes

Interim director Jess McEvoy sets out next steps for flagship user verification service – as analysts downplay HMRC's move to develop its own ID system

The new head of the Government Digital Service's flagship Verify service has given her first update on the identify assurance project's progress since taking the reins.

Verify is a key part of GDS's Government-as-a-Platform strategy of providing common platforms that can be used across government, and it aims to cut out face-to-face verification work for departments by allowing citizens to prove who they are online through certified companies.

It went live in May after passing its GDS service assessment, but the project's director Janet Hughes left Whitehall at the end of last week following a series of high-profile changes at the central government digital team.

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Jess McEvoy has now stepped up to become interim Verify director, and in a new post on GOV.UK, she said the team was working "harder than ever" to continue to improve the service.  

According to McEvoy, Verify has now been used to verify more than 800,000 individual identities, with more than three quarters of users reporting that they are either "satisfied or "very satisfied" with the service.

Setting out the team's priorities for the next three months, McEvoy said GDS would be working with departments on new services, including allowing drivers to tell the DVLA about their medical conditions and allowing mortgage deeds to be signed through the Land Registry.

"We’re also working with some of the services that are already using GOV.UK Verify to continue to meet the needs of their specific users and continue improve completion rates," she added. 

"A great example of that is DWP’s Universal Credit service, where we’ve been researching improvements to the user journey and testing those with users in job centres."

McEvoy also stressed that the government was committed to "maximum possible re-use of GOV.UK Verify across the public sector and beyond", with the team now looking at offering the service to NHS trusts and local authorities, as well as private sector organisations.

"We're planning to conduct a series of discovery projects with local authorities looking at how we might extend GOV.UK Verify in this area," she said.

And the new Verify chief also emphasised the importance of making sure users' privacy was protected on the platform, with an update from Verify's privacy officer on the balance of having to "meet both user expectations and service providers’ privacy obligations" due next month.

"Wildly unrealistic expectations"

The departure of Hughes, who had been with the GDS since 2013, raised fresh questions over the future of Verify, amid reports that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has been building its own identity system in parallel to the GDS platform.

Former Cabinet Office official Andrew Greenway told CSW that Hughes' departure would "leave many in government with a sense of loss".

But Jessica Figueras, chief analyst for technology consultancy Kable, told CSW's sister title that while the departure of Hughe was a "blow" to GDS, recent leadership changes at the team did not "in themselves signal a downgrading of GDS' role".

"The fact is that Verify is an incredibly ambitious programme and the fundamental concepts behind it were untested" – Jessica Figueras, analyst, Kable​

Meanwhile, Figueras said it "should not come as any surprise" if HMRC was considering other options for identiy verification, because the original plan for Verify was for it "to provide low to medium security ID assurance for citizens, and this hasn’t changed".

Verify has not been without controversy, with an early version of the platform criticised by MPs for contributing to delays in paying agricultural subsidies to farmers through the Rural Payments Agency. Problems were also experienced by citizens applying for the HMRC-administered married couples' tax break through Verify.

Figueras said the main problem faced by Verify had been the "wildly unrealistic expectations for roll-out" that were set initially, which meant that "slow and patchy delivery" had been seen "as a sign of failure" for the platform.

"The fact is that Verify is an incredibly ambitious programme and the fundamental concepts behind it were untested. There are lots of moving parts, and multiple relationships between different parts of government and the private sector," Figueras said.

"Janet Hughes correctly identified that making it work was about business transformation and culture change, not technology. The new Verify team will need staying power and political guile if they are to deliver on its long-term potential."

Daniel Thornton of the Institute for Government meanwhile explained why HMRC might opt for its own verification system.

“If we look at what the strategic things are that the government needs to get right, then verifying people’s identity is clearly one of them,” he said.

“If HMRC wants to reduce fraud, it’s not about better service for customers, it’s about better service for the taxpayer – the nation as a taxpayer, rather than individuals. Added to which, HMRC needs something that will work with businesses as well as individuals.”

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