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GDS isn't working (part 4): GOV.UK Verify



Guest blog: Alan Mather continues his series on the Government Digital Service with an argument that the GOV.UK Verify programme has gone seriously off-track


The conclusion to part 3: The reboot was: Verify - It's time to be brave and ignore sunk costs (investment to date and contractual exit costs if any) and let this one go.  

Instead, GDS appears to be doubling down, based on an article in Computer Weekly:

  • GDS speakers at a techUK event encouraged suppliers to use the Government as a Platform tools in their own products, in the hope of widening their use. However, according to guests at the event – who wished to remain anonymous due to their ongoing relationships with GDS – it was unable to give any guarantees around support or service levels.
  • GDS has now developed a new feature for Verify that allows “level of assurance 1” (LOA1) – a reduced level of verification that is effectively a straightforward user log-in and password system, which offers “minimal confidence in the asserted identity” of users for low risk transactions. In effect, LOA1 means the government service trusts the user to verify their own identity.
  • The Government has committed to having 25 million users of Verify by 2020, and offering LOA1 is seen as a key step in widening the adoption of the service to meet this target.

This is, though, to miss the point of "What is Verify for?":

The goal isn't to have 25 million users. That's a metric from 1999 when eyeballs were all that mattered. 25 million users that don't access services, or that sign up for one and never use another service is not a measure of relevancy.

A government authentication platform is instead for:

  • Giving its users a secure, trusted way of accessing information that government holds about them and allowing them to update it, provide new items and interact with government processes.
  • Allowing users to act as themselves as well as representatives of others (corporate and personal) with the assurance that there is proper authorisation in place from all necessary parties.
  • Putting sufficient protection in the way so as to ensure that my data and interactions cannot be accessed or carried out by people who aren't me.  In other words, "I am who I say I am" and, by definition, no one else is.

What then, if we took away the numbers and the arbitrary measures and said, instead, that the real purpose is to create an environment where a first time user, someone who has had no meaningful interaction with government before, is able to transact online and need never use offline processes from that moment on.

Sixteen year olds would begin their online interaction with government by getting their National Insurance numbers online. They would go on to apply for their student loan a couple of years later. With their first job they would receive their PAYE information and perhaps claim some benefits. Perhaps they would be handling PAYE or VAT for their own employer.

Health information and records would be available to the right people and would move them as they moved jobs and locations. Perhaps they would be looking at health information and records for others.

They would see the impact of pension contributions and understand the impact of changes in taxation. Perhaps they would be helping other people figure out their pension contributions and entitlements.

They might decide whether they can afford an ISA this year.In time some would pay their Self-Assessment this way. Or maybe they would be completing Self-Assessments for others.

Change the experience

Instead of creating some transactions that are nearby or easy, we would seek to change the entire experience for someone who doesn't know about government. They would never know that it had been broken for years, that paper forms were the norm for many, or that in 2010 people had to go from department to department to get what they needed.  They would take to this the way a baby learns that you swipe an iPad screen. It would never occur to them that a magazine doesn't work the same way.

Along the way, those who were at later stages of life would be encouraged to make the move online, joining at whatever stage of the journey made sense for them.

This wouldn't be about transformation - the bulk of the users wouldn't know what it was like before. This would just be "the way government is", the way it's supposed to be. Yes, in the background there would have been re-engineering (not, please, transformation), but all the user would see is the way it worked  ̶  fluidly, consistently and clearly, in their language, the language of the user.

Progress would no longer be about made up numbers, but about the richness of the interaction, the degree to which we were able to steer people away from paper and offline channels, and the success with which we met user needs.  The measure would be simply that they had no need, ever, to go offline.

Different problem

Verify isn't the way into this journey. It started out trying to solve a different problem and isn't seen, and wasn't conceived, as part of a cohesive whole where the real aim is to shift interaction from offline to online. 

In its current form it's on life support, being kept alive only because there's a reluctance to deal with the sunk costs  ̶  the undoubtedly huge effort (money and time from good people) it's taken to get here.  But it's a "you can't get there from here" problem, and when that's the case ... you have to be brave and stop digging.

My original take on the purpose of GDS was: “GDS is for facilitating the re-engineering of the way government does business  ̶  changing from the traditional, departmentally led silos and individual forms to joined up, proactive, thought-through interactions that range widely across government. It is not, in my view, about controlling, stopping, writing code or religious/philosophical debates about what's right. Its job is to remove the obstacles that stop government from championing the user cause.

Then what if GDS took the vanguard in moving government to cater for the user journey, from a user's first interaction to its last. A focused programme of making an online government available to everyone. A way of assessing that "I am who I say I am" is an essential part of that.

Starting with a 16 year old with minimal footprint is going to be challenging but is surely an essential part of making this work. This would be a visionary challenge  ̶  something that could be laid out step by step, month to month, in partnership with the key departments.

It can be dull to look backwards, but sometimes we have to, so that we move forward sensibly. The picture above shows the approach we planned at the Inland Revenue a long time ago.

We would take on three parallel streams of work: (1) move forms online; (2) join up with some other departments to create something new; and (3) put together a full vertical slice that was entirely online and extend it. We were going to start with a company because our thinking was that they would move online first (this was in 2000): register the company, apply for VAT and tax status, send in returns, add employees, create pensions etc.

It feels like we've lost that vision, and instead are creating ad hoc transactions based on departmental readiness, budget and willingness to play. That's about as far away from user needs as I can imagine being.

Lack of guarantees

As a postscript, I was intrigued by this line in the Computer Weekly report: “GDS was unable to give any guarantees around support or service levels.”

On the face of it, it's true. GDS is part of the Cabinet Office and so can't issue contracts to third parties where it might incur penalties for non-delivery. But if others are to invest and put their own customer relationships on the line, this is hardly a user needs led conversation.

Back in 2004 we spent some time looking at legal vehicles  ̶  trading funds, agencies, JVs, spin-offs  ̶  and there are lots of options, some that can be reached quite quickly.
My fundamental point, though, is that GDS should be facilitating the re-engineering of government, helping departments and holding them to account for their promises, not trying to replace the private sector, or step fully into the service delivery chain  ̶  least of all if the next step in the delivery promise is "You will have to take our word for it."

Alan Mather has held several digital roles in central government, including chief executive officer of the Cabinet Office e-Delivery Team (a predecessor to GDS), and is now director at Ardea Enterprises. This has been republished from his In the Eye of the Storm blog and conveys his personal view. There’s scope for alternative perspectives, or agreement, through his blog page’s comment function.

We've been running the rest of the series through the week:

Part 1 - The Emperor and his clothes

Part 2 - The content mystery

Part 3 - The reboot

Part 5 - No vision, no ambition

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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