People in the UK will next year be able to access online government services using a “one-stop service” app, a cabinet minister announced this week. The plans for the new app for centralised public services were unveiled by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, at the GovTech Summit.
The app is meant to replace the failed Gov.uk Verify system: an online identity platform still in use that provides a single login for over 20 central government online services and which has cost the taxpayer around £220m so far. Under its current format, there are 191 different ways to set up accounts and 44 sign-in methods that people wanting to access digital services can use.
It is thought the government has decided to proceed with the new app following the success of the NHS and NHS Covid-19 apps during the pandemic. The project is still going through a spending review and does not have a budget set, but it is expected to launch by the end of 2022, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told Tech Monitor.
Will the app be a failure like Verify?
The new app is a “good idea” that can make online public services more accessible and easier to use, says Rob Anderson, public sector principal analyst at GlobalData. He adds that the Government Digital Service (GDS), the government department in charge of online public services provision, tried to achieve something similar with the roll-out of Gov.uk Verify in 2014.
However, the Verify platform is widely considered a failure and an investigation into it by the National Audit Office found that GDS has consistently missed its targets and went over budget. Although the Infrastructure & Projects Authority, the government projects watchdog, recommended terminating the project in 2018, the government decided in March to extend it until April 2023.
“Verify failed because they were trying to be everything for all people,” says Anderson. “They tried to do a sort of verification and identification to make sure it’s the right user to cover every single service, but it didn’t integrate with what was already happening in departments like HMRC or DWP. So it wasn’t taken up because it didn’t meet everybody’s requirements.”
The simpler front-end that the app promises should allow people to navigate the different government services easily and could help resolve these issues, Anderson believes. He adds that the government has also learned its lessons about the need for departments to work together closely and integrate the different services already available: “I’m hopeful this will be more of a success because it’s very different people in charge in central government in terms of the GDS and the Central Digital Data Office,” he says. “They understand they need to work more collegiality with other departments. Previously GDS went a long way without taking much notice of what other departments were doing.”
An opportunity to give a boost to the digital public services offering in the UK?
Daniel Korski, co-founder and CEO of govtech accelerator and investment fund PUBLIC, which hosted the GovTech Summit, said that the introduction of the Gov.uk app can be an opportunity for the UK to catch up with other countries that have a higher level of engagement between citizens and digital public services. Although people in the UK are using digital public services more often as a result of the pandemic, the country still lags behind other European countries.
“Compared to what's happening in other countries like Estonia and Denmark, we're still way below,” Korski said, noting that the usage of online services in the UK is around 50% for those with full access to the internet, whereas in countries like Iceland, Norway or Denmark it is above 90%.
“There is this lacuna between our citizens’ digital experience and that of some of the more advanced countries," added Korski. And I think we've got to see the introduction of the app in that context and see it as an opportunity to make it much easier for lots of citizens to engage with services."
A joint report by PUBLIC and BT launched on Thursday during the GovTech Summit found that 33% of people in the UK that have used public services considered “digitised” still had to submit paper forms, make a phone call or visit a location in person. And 15% of those surveyed have had to repeat an online form or application because they were unable to resolve their issue after a single interaction, most often due to a technical issue with the digital service or its inaccessible design.
“So it's simply not enough that you have to sit in front of your computer,” Korski says. “You then also have to go and fill in some paperwork or send it off. And that dichotomy is one that that has to be addressed if we want a better citizen experience and the app again here could be useful. If the app can play a role in creating a much more sort of end-to-end digital experience or seamless digital experience, then I think it's enormously welcome.”
Gov.uk app: privacy concerns
Some experts, including privacy campaigners, have raised concerns of the possible implications that having a centralised digital identity could have for personal privacy and if the app would, in practice, mean having a digital identity app.
A recent investigation by The Guardian discovered that iProov, a commercial third-party working on the NHS app, was storing citizens’ biometric data, leading to questions about the transparency and secrecy around the use of this information.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told Tech Monitor that the app will use the highest levels of data protection and that the service will be optional for people to use. “If you don't want to create an account, you don't have to create an account. If you want to do things through paper and the post, you can still do that. This is just a way to make things easier for people basically,” the spokesperson said.
PUBLIC’s Korski thinks that privacy issues relating to the app are “a total red herring” but that government should nonetheless ensure that it is built with transparency and any public concerns addressed.
“The idea that somehow an app on your phone that allows you to file your taxes in a way you would anyway do by logging in to the Government Gateway or to claim benefits in a way that you anyway would have to do by presenting a whole set of credentials digitally – I just don't see the marked shift,” Korski says, adding that he believes if the government works in the open, most people will support it.
“What’s so interesting is that in the study that we did, 73% supported the digital ID system if it allows citizens to control what data government and others have access to," he says. "There’s enormous latent support for this if the right governance arrangements are put in place.”