GDS looks to private sector to boost Verify take-up

Leading official says conversations are under way to encourage the creation of accounts to access commercial services

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is looking towards the private sector to help drive take-up of the GOV.UK Verify digital identity service and achieve the aim of enrolling 25 million users by 2020.

Nic HarrisonNic Harrison (pictured), director of service design and assurance, digital identity, said the target remains in place, despite the number of existing accounts being around just 2.2 million, and that GDS is re-emphasising the original intent for Verify to be used for public and private sector services.

Speaking to journalists at the Cabinet Office Sprint 18 conference, he said: “One of the things we’re working at the moment is how we get the private sector to really grow identity creation in the private sector.

“Those 25 million user accounts will not all be created by government services; they will come from other places as well. It’s one we’re now more actively pursuing with our identity provider partners.”

While it is not yet focusing on specific areas, GDS is in discussions about taking a less active role in controlling Verify so that it evolves as a federated system. This reflects an initial aim of the Identity Assurance Programme, which emphasised the long term potential for Verify to be used for commercial services.

It will also involve government becoming more of a consumer rather than a creator and owner.

More conversations

“It’s a thing about which we want to have more conversations with the private sector,” Harrison said. “Clearly what government wants is a ubiquitous digital identify for services in the public and private sector.”

He said there is scope for private providers to set up their own identity hubs that follow the standards that underpin Verify, and that this would contribute to them being interoperable with government services.

Part of the reason for the new emphasis on the private sector is that at the moment there is limited scope for the creation of new digital services requiring the use of Verify.

“The reality is, SR15 (the 2015 Spending Review) combined with Brexit means departments are not doing a lot of back office transformation, so we are not going to get hundreds of new services digitised in the next year to bring on Verify,” Harrison said. “So reality bites; we have to accelerate what we’re doing with the private sector.

“We’ve been having conversations with the identity providers, and the thing I think is really positive is that they are all absolutely up for this challenge. If anything they’ve been wanting us to take our hands off the controls, so we’re pushing at an open door.”

Operational impediments

He also acknowledged that take-up by government services has been slower than initially expected, but said there have been “sound operational reasons” for this.

While the NHS is working on an identification system for patients, he said this reflects the need to deal with specific issues such as reference to GP systems, and that Verify could be part of a generic identity hub for the health service.

Meanwhile, there have been signs of an increase in take-up, with 200,000 of the 2.2 million Verify accounts having been created in the past two months, and the number of transactions for which it has been used increasing from 1.7 million to 6.3 million over the past six months.

Harrison also said that a recent exercise to look at the experience of other governments in dealing with digital identities led GDS to believe the UK is “ahead of the game”.

“We came away thinking we are broadly on the right track,” he said. “We want something standards based, with the Government as arbiter of the standards, where the solution is federated and it’s partly private. We’ve leveraged what we’ve learned from this and are trying to ingest a little pace.”