In a surprise that will come to no one, the British Government confirmed this week that its existing digital identity assurance service - GOV.UK Verify - is being phased out in favour of a shiny new service, being dubbed GOV.UK Account.
Work on GOV.UK Verify has been ongoing for close to a decade, with hundreds of millions of pounds spent on its development, but has been consistently plagued with technical issues and suffered a lack of support from some government departments.
For example, in recent years HMRC and DWP, two of the largest departments in Whitehall, went their own way and said that they would use their own identity assurance platforms for citizen access to services.
Whilst Verify has received a bit of a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic, with millions of claimants trying to access welfare services, it was announced by the Treasury last year that it should be phased out by the end of 2021.
This week Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Julia Lopez MP, who oversees digital work carried out by the Government Digital Service (GDS), gave a speech at the Investing and Savings Alliance conference, where she laid out Britain's plans for digital identity and data use across government.
Lopez said that as the country emerges from lockdown, the government needs to take forward the lessons it has learnt during the pandemic to make sure that it uses data more intelligently in how it crafts and delivers public services.
If you've been an observer of digital government for some time, this is certainly something you would have had before. The government has long talked up the benefits of making better use of data, but to date has largely failed to progress any sort of coherent plan.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have provided some momentum, however, as data use has been critical in the UK's response to fighting the virus (even if the effectiveness of that response is up for debate). Lopez said:
Under the great new digital leadership we now have in the Cabinet Office - of whom, more later - our goal is to help the government become the model of a modern, fully digitally-enabled service provider. And you can take it as read that everything I talk about today - the National Data Strategy, the Data Standards Authority, the draft ‘UK Trust Framework' for digital identities and attributes, the GOV.UK Account and our new pilot for a single sign-on and digital identity service, which is the successor to Verify - speaks to this.
Because for too long, citizens have been expected to revolve around the government like planets around the sun, doomed to spend their digital lives in a constant orbit of frustrating interaction from afar.
‘One Login for Government'
As noted above, the Cabinet Office and GDS's (renewed) vision is to have ‘One Login for Government', which makes it easier for people to find and access government services, allowing citizens to prove their identity only once - if they agree to share their data between services and departments.
Lopez said that this government doesn't want data handling, digital and identity to be "hived off nor left to individual Whitehall departments to sort out by themselves", which suggests that we are heading back towards a centralised approach to digital delivery. In recent years powers have moved away from GDS back towards individual departmental control.
Lopez said that the problem can be identified when looking at GOV.UK - the government's online publishing platform - where there are over 300 transactional services, with all of them collecting data and over half offering some kind of account. None of them talk to each other.
She added that GDS, government departments and ministers have now found "common ground and purpose" in the need to tackle this fragmentation. The answer, Lopez claims, will be the development of GOV.UK Account for digital identity. She said:
This will tilt the dynamic: from the user having to seek out relevant information to the government being able to push targeted advice and information in their direction.
GOV.UK Account has already been trialled with an account linked to the government's online Brexit Checker, in which people saw ‘tailored advice' about the UK's new arrangements with the EU. According to Lopez, since November 2020 users have been able to set up an account in order to save the answers and advice they need regarding Brexit, and return to them at a later date. This trial, from which feedback has been gathered, will guide future development work. Lopez said:
Over the rest of the year, the next stage of our work focuses on trialling personalisation, and how - based on the information users are happy to provide about their circumstances - we can offer them a more tailored service with easier and quicker access to relevant information.
Underpinning the GOV.UK Account will be digital identity. Our discrete digital identity pilot project, deliberately small in scale at the start, will create the proof of concept. This will be led and coordinated by GDS, co-designed with Whitehall departments and public services, and be largely government-built and government-owned. Initially, it will connect only to a small number of services but will have the capability to grow rapidly once the scheme is judged to be on track.
Our overall goal for digital identity is to develop a successor both to Verify and, in time, other digital identity systems that are currently used across government. And while the best elements of Verify will be reused where appropriate, all parties are keen to move on from Verify's over-elaborate expectations trajectory, and cost. Good progress on our pilot is expected in coming months, with joint discovery work due to accelerate further.
Underpinning this work is the ongoing data work being carried out at DCMS, which published Britain's National Data Strategy back in December. The National Data Strategy has been a long time in the making and aims to reduce barriers to data sharing.
Lopez claims that the government will get better at sharing information across departments, and get better at interrogating and analysing data to inform policy making. She said:
It is vital that the government stores data and later shares it reliably and to uniformly high standards. It means that civil servants can access it quickly, easily and securely; also that the personalised services we want to design and deliver will become a reality much sooner; and, critically, that citizens can be confident their personal information is protected at all times.
In short - I'll believe it when I see it.