The government wants to have another go at digital identity. Can it get it right this time?

The Government Digital Service wants to make it easy to access public services online. Will it be up to the challenge?

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It should be frictionless to claim benefits, check your visa status or look up how much tax you are paying.

Image: Steven Heap / EyeEm / Getty Images

Filing a tax return, changing some key personal information like a name or an address, sponsoring a visa applicant: for many of us, this type of admin is still synonymous with complex paperwork and hours spent on the phone trying to reach the right government service for advice. 

The UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) wants to change that. As the organization responsible for running the Gov.UK website, GDS's mission statement is to modernize the way that citizens interact with public services.  

The idea is that it should be easier to claim benefits, check your visa status or look up how much tax you are paying: these processes, as well as many other public services, should be easily accessed online, on the Gov.UK website.  

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GDS was created a decade ago, and has since then run into a number of difficulties that impeded its progress; but the organization has now published a new strategy that lays down a vision for the next three years.

Presented by Tom Read, who was recently appointed CEO of GDS after the service spent two years led by interim leaders, the strategy focuses on improving Gov.UK, so that it becomes "the single trusted source of information, guidance and services for the public". 

This means improving the user's experience of the website thanks to better navigation and search or automatic address pickers, but also ramping up efforts in digitization. For example, the process of printing off a PDF, filling it in by pen and posting it to a government office should not be the norm anymore; instead, said Read, it should be possible to automatically digitize and submit existing paper forms. 

GDS will also work on joining up the different departments that exist on Gov.UK, which currently exist in silos. This means that, to access different services on Gov.UK, users typically have to log in to different platforms using different identifiers. Implementing a single sign-on for all the services that need it seems an evident improvement.  

In addition, Gov.UK could be tailored to each user's experience – an initiative that has been successfully tried and tested during the Brexit process. Visitors, when they reached the "Brexit checker" landing page, were effectively made to answer a series of questions to assess their situation and provide them with information that was personalized for their needs. From housing to employment through health, it is easy to see how the concept may work for many other aspects of life. 

"Tom Read was a great appointment and publishing this strategy shows a new sense of direction that GDS has needed for a while," Marcus Shepheard, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG), tells ZDNet. "The strategy reflects genuine challenges that the government faces on digital and ones that are likely best addressed under the leadership of someone who understands the complex and often fraught landscape of government digital and data." 

As the new CEO of GDS, Read has effectively entered a challenging environment, marked by an official rhetoric that favors a technology-driven government, but seemingly crippled by inaction when it comes to pushing the modernization agenda.  

The past few years have seen GDS lose much of its impetus, according to experts like Shepheard. Created in 2011 with a "start-up" spirit of innovation that gave it a huge boost and early successes, the organization then saw a wave of departures from key leaders in 2015, some of whom blamed the lack of bold leadership in generating real change in the delivery of government services

"The transition from an innovator to an organization that had to sustain increasingly routine changes evidently took away some of the early momentum," says Shepheard. "It started with a clear mission, but when some of the programs became harder to deliver, and the bulk of what it was doing was just 'more of the same', there was definitely a loss of impetus." 

GDS, of course, did succeed to an extent in laying the groundwork for digital government. A recent report from the IfG shows that the organization's accomplishments were especially brought to light during the recent COVID-19 crisis, as public services were able to leverage the Gov.UK platform to react swiftly to huge demand for information about lockdown rules and health advice, including details of COVID-19 symptoms, links to government regulation, advice about benefits schemes for individuals and businesses or statistics about the disease.  

It remains that, in the decade since GDS was formed, the organization has come under repeated criticism for its failure to deliver on its promises. Parliamentary reports stressed that the service's role had become "increasingly unclear", and warned that without further change across departments, the UK would be overtaken by more digital-leaning countries in international rankings.  

A key issue that should be addressed by GDS has to do with the government's inefficient use of data. Last year, an analysis published by the IfG highlighted some deep-rooted shortcomings when it comes to sharing useful data across departments to improve public services, and urged officials to "fix the plumbing" to resolve the issues pervading the government's use of technology. 

For Lewis Lloyd, who authored the report, the current state of things can be linked to GDS's recent slow-down. "GDS did really give the digital agenda quite a kick, but that was ten years ago and it feels like it's lost its way over time," Lloyd tells ZDNet.  

"The obvious reason has been distraction. The government has for a number of years had a huge amount on its plate, starting with Brexit. Throw in the pandemic and a change of government with new priorities, and you get a difficult situation," he adds. 

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Data is a central point that Read addressed in GDS's new strategy. The new CEO's objectives include setting up data-sharing agreements between departments to map and connect information about individuals, and building a central interface that could manage and update the data that is held about each user.  

This means that, instead of filling out a new form to change their details every time they try to access a different service, citizens could see their data updated across different platforms. "One-click" completion of forms could also be possible thanks to information that is already known about the user. 

Read also laid out new targets on digital identity – a contentious issue that has raised further concern and criticism for many years. 

GDS is advocating for a simple solution that would let citizens prove their identity online, instead of manually scanning proofs of residence or bank statements for verification purposes. But "a simple digital identity solution that works for everyone," as it is described by Read, is easier said than done. GDS, in fact, has already put the idea to the test, without much success

The current way that users can verify their identity on Gov.UK is through a scheme called Gov.UK Verify, which launched in 2016 with the promise of becoming the preferred way to access most government services online.  

In 2019, after the scheme had already swallowed £154 million ($212 million) of public money, a series of damning reports shed a light on the program's failures. Fewer than half of the expected number of government services had adopted Verify and the scheme counted less than four million users – only a sixth of the expected uptake. The government decided to stop funding the program from 2021. 

GDS will "build on what we have learned from Gov.UK Verify," said Read, with the goal of creating a new way for users to sign-on to services from any department and confirm their identity. 

"I don't think it will be easy," says Shepheard. "But hopefully GDS can approach this in a way where they start small, with a clear framework and build up." 

Will GDS deliver on its objective to create a working method for digital identities, and on its broader strategy for creating a digital government in the next three years? "I am cautiously optimistic," says Shepheard. "Over recent years the lack of focus on its objectives has been a genuine obstacle to their work in my view. But I think the objectives broadly align well with existing areas of strength for GDS." 

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Perhaps the most notable benefit of the new strategy is one of clarification. GDS is not the only organization leading the government's digital transformation: in recent years, the number of roles in the field has rapidly increased.  

So has the confusion surrounding who is in charge of what. The government, for instance, recently created a brand-new Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), designed to shape the public sector's strategy in technology-related fields and lead the Digital, Data and Technology Profession department – but without explaining how the new organization would work together with GDS. 

"The landscape of organizations with responsibilities for digital and data in government has been growing and increasingly there was no obvious boundaries around who was doing what," says Shepheard. "The exact relationship between GDS and CDDO will take time to shake out. But I think having a clear set of responsibilities and deliverables will make it easier for GDS to move forwards with what it needs to be doing." 

The new strategy provides more detail on the new relationship. For example, the CDDO will take on all issues related to legacy technology and cyber risk.

The challenges of achieving the digital transformation of government are huge. Now 10 years in the making, GDS can no longer describe itself as being "in start-up mode"; but to meet its objectives, the organization will have to sustain the spirit of innovation that was characteristic of its early endeavors.