Identity policy in practice

Policy wonks sometimes wonder what would happen if Ministers were forced to carry a reminder of their failed policies in their pocket for over a decade. A natural experiment now shows they learn nothing and are inclined to wheel out their failed policy in shows of blatant opportunism. The Home Office cancelled the Windrush generation’s passports, it would do the same to their ID cards – or those of EU citizens – and cause far more intentional misery for British citizens. If all the 3 million used the paper process rather than the digital one, the only budget that would get broken is the Home Office’s.

Phil’s just published the go-to piece for those concerned about the records Government keeps on them that will be used to determine whether they get residency. The services linked to, all already available, show the power of digital services rnade by people who care about citizens’ needs, not just Government’s needs.

So why did no digital team in Government (anywhere?) publish that post? And why is ‘Android only’ the sole approach Home Office Digital could get through its process?

In the current climate, it seems the choices for our national identity infrastructure are the commercially-backed identity assurance model of GOV.UK Verify, or an ID cards scheme run by the most punitive Home Office the country has ever seen.

Those whose interest in identity is driven by Brexit should be extremely wary of demanding ‘punishment cards’ for every citizen, that the Home Office could revoke at will. The Home Office has proved it cannot keep adequate records of who is here entirely lawfully – in some cases choosing to destroy them, in so doing ensuring it could never issue ID cards that would satisfy the most extreme of Leave advocates.

If he really is a thought leader in his field, Charles Clarke has been carrying such a punishment card for a decade. Or perhaps he is just wrong – as are all those trying to revive the identity ‘debate’ for their own purposes.

GOV.UK Verify can work today for institutions and companies (such as accountancies submitting detail for their clients) as well as individuals, if Departments wanted it to work.


How HMRC can allow accountants to use Verify

In short, Verify assures only the identity of the human being at the keyboard. Everything else is down to the service being delivered.

A service could therefore determine:

Who are you? [Verify login] => Who are you working for today?* => Who are you submitting on behalf of?*

Where one person has multiple roles relevant to that service (e.g. a freelance accountant working for multiple firms), or multiple customers who they represent (e.g. an accountant with multiple clients), both of those questions can easily be asked where needed – the service then storing them as attributes of the session if deemed necessary, with only some details shown to the taxpayer (i.e. the company that submitted the record, rather than necessarily the named individual).

The latter two questions would be optional if a submitter works for just one company, or if they only have a single client. And if an employee really wants to keep their tax accounts separate, they could use a different ‘work’ ID provider than their ‘personal’ ID provider.

HMRC’s current gateway conflates all three – a company gets a username/password and hands it to whomever they like, and HMRC gets to blame them for it. While that may work perfectly well for HMRC, it is not addressing a user need – rather, it is solving the overarching institutional requirement in Government: a preference for a quiet life.

HMRC’s Government Gateway may wish to hide in the ‘90s, hoping nothing ever changes. The question is whether that is an approach DCMS (with “policy leadership”) will support. Though that may not necessarily mean that much if HMRC also doesn’t care.

The acid test for Cabinet Office on this is whether DWP has a handshake with HMRC, to give them both a quiet life. Given the attempt to sneak such a deal into the Digital Economy Bill last year – thwarted by a single act of idiocy by HMRC – perhaps they do.

While Whitehall technocrats squabble perpetually in committee over the policies their pet systems will and won’t support, a seemingly endless march of ‘flagship’ policies continue to cause misery to the very citizens they claim to serve.

If the Government is committed to digital delivery, it should deliver.

Jun 2018
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