England & Wales, Scotland Technology

Making it easier for people to access public services securely and to agreed standards


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Every day, people have to present physical proofs of who they are to access public services or obtain entitlements for which they are eligible. These might be passports, driving licences, utility bills or mobile phone bills. And people often have to present these proofs multiple times to different organisations, or even to different departments within the same organisation.

To address this, a lot of work has been done over the last few years to establish digital identities – a way for people to access services electronically without the constant need to present and re-present proofs.

Digital identities are usually created by a different organisation from the one that’s going to use them. In the UK Government’s Verify programme, for example, identities were created by companies such as the Post Office and Experian but used by departments such as HMRC and DWP. Companies providing digital identities are called Identity Providers (IdPs) while ones consuming identities are referred to as Service Providers or Relying Parties (SPs or RPs). Local authorities and health boards are just a couple of types of service providers.

For these digital identities to be trusted by RPs they need to meet standards that everyone agrees on. The standards are usually defined by government, requiring IdPs to use particular types of evidence in particular combinations, and through being able to carry out checks on these pieces of evidence in a way that meets agreed guidelines. The general approach is to make sure that any evidence presented in support of an identity is real, valid and presented by the person to whom it relates. Checks are also required to make sure that people are not making up identities or trying to use someone else’s details.

Generally, the companies that sign up people for a digital identity do all the checking online. This requires a significant investment in technology and training. It is a complex piece of work.

The online process can result in a high number of failures, mostly due to people not having the right kind of evidence (like a passport or a driving licence) or not having enough of a trusted online presence (such as a bank account or credit history) that can be checked electronically. This is a particular problem for younger people and vulnerable groups.

Digital identities in the public sector

In the public sector, we tend to see people face-to-face. We also know a lot of them because we deliver services to them regularly and we hold a lot of information about them in our back-office systems. This gives us an advantage over the organisations that operate exclusively online. However, we are not yet joined up enough in what we do to press home that advantage.

If we could harness and rationalise the processes that people go through when they present identity evidence in person, we could go a long way towards building a trusted public sector identity. To do that, we would need to agree a way of checking presented evidence that meets the standards laid down by government. That might mean that things take a little bit longer, but we would only need to do them once.

So how can the Improvement Service help? How can we help make it easier for people to access public services securely, offline and online? How can we support local authority officers (or others involved in identity verification process) verify that physical proofs and documents presented are genuine?

Our flagship myaccount service, with nearly 1 million registered subscribers, is already playing its part in helping people, day-in, day-out access public services securely across Scotland.  And through developments we introduced over the last 18 months, we’re already helping people create a reusable digital identity and link it to their own myaccount.

We’re working now to broaden the myaccount offering even further. This year, we plan to introduce new tools and services aimed squarely at helping Scotland’s local authorities provide multiple routes for citizens to prove who they are, online and offline. They’re also designed to help people – including hard-to-reach groups like younger people or vulnerable groups – lacking identity evidence or a digital footprint to access public services securely. Just as importantly, these new tools will cater for those comfortable using technology and those who may not be able – or even want – to do so.

We know we can’t make this happen on our own. Over the coming months, the Improvement Service will deepen its engagement with all local authorities around the developments and of the relevance and importance of them towards building a trusted public sector identity that meets the standards laid down by Government.

New opportunities

As well as selling the benefits and securing the participation of local authorities, through this engagement, we’ll be making available several opportunities to discuss in more detail and take feedback on:

  • The developments, tools and services that we’re planning to deploy
  • The workflows and processes to help all 32 Scottish local authorities follow the same model for identity-proofing through common standards consistently applied and adhered to.
  • The processes, checks and balances that it will be necessary to agree for presented evidence to ensure standards laid down by government are met.
  • Onboarding and training, support and advice available.

Inevitably, local authorities will have some considerations and questions of their own. We anticipate their strong support for any arrangements being robust. However, we do expect their preference for any new tools and services to be intuitive, user-friendly and light in resource and effort to operate.

We appreciate that, in these unprecedented times, communities across Scotland will be looking at local authorities (and other public bodies) to demonstrate a measured and proportionate response which focuses on protecting those who are most vulnerable and on maintaining critical services. We recognise too it’s a very dynamic situation. We respect other priorities will take precedence.

However, we’ll continue to plan for local authority engagement around providing multiple routes for citizens to prove who they are, online and offline. We’ll do this in ways that offer convenience and choice using digital technologies, and which are sympathetic to other pressing priorities.

Ultimately, the goal is to help Scotland’s local authorities (and others) to get better joined up and to be well-positioned to press home the distinct advantage from delivering services to citizens regularly, and from holding a lot of information about them.


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