Top civil servant Robert Watt defends ‘value’ of PSC

One of the country’s top civil servants has defended the public services card (PSC), saying the “value” of the project is “often misunderstood”.

Top civil servant Robert Watt defends ‘value’ of PSC

One of the country’s top civil servants has defended the public services card (PSC), saying the “value” of the project is “often misunderstood”.

Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, has said the PSC project “puts Ireland in the very strong position of making available secure digital services at a fraction of the cost of some other countries”.

The PSC, which debuted in 2011 to provide access to welfare services while minimising identity fraud, has been scrutinised because no unifying business case was ever proposed for it.

It is also uncertain how much the project has cost.

In 2016, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) was informed by an accounting officer from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that the project would cost €60m by the end of 2017.

However, the department now says it is unable to calculate the card’s up-to-date costings, as the “identity authentication and registration functions involved in the PSC process have been incorporated into the day-to-day work of the department”.

It said staffing costs are not readily available.

Writing to the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee last week, on the subject of the card, Mr Watt — whose department instigated, and has primary responsibility for, the expansion of the PSC’s remit to State services other than welfare — said that the card’s online portal, MyGovID, “provides the strongest levels of identity assurance available to the State and best protects our citizens from having their personal identity stolen or their data being given to the wrong person”.

The recently published, highly adversarial report of the Data Protection Commissioner into the PSC, which declared that its use for processing State services other than welfare was illegal, also revealed that the card has had no impact in preventing welfare fraud.

In 2017, €38.4m worth of fraudulent cases, numbering 10,467 instances, were detailed by the Department of Social Protection, with just €894,000 relating to identity fraud.

The department’s annual budget, €20bn, is the largest of any body in the State. Just 35 cases of identity fraud were prosecuted by Social Protection in 2018.

Mr Watt was writing to the committee ahead of his appearance before it to discuss the annual accounts of his department, as detailed by the C&AG last week. That appearance is expected in the coming weeks.

Recently, Mr Watt declined to appear before the Committee on Public Expenditure and Reform, his home department, to discuss the card, citing the delivery of Budget 2020 as the reason.

Last week, the Irish Examiner revealed that Mr Watt’s department had ordered the Department of Children to make the PSC the sole means by which parents can access the national childcare scheme, which is due to go live at the end of this month.

That appears to contradict the findings of the Data Protection Commissioner. The DPC has since written to the Department of Children, seeking clarity, before deciding what “further steps” to take.

Mr Watt also discussed the “attempts” by “some sectors of the media” to suggest that the card has not been well-received by the public.

“It is clear that the public are hugely supportive of this direction of travel,” he said, adding that 390,000 people have signed up for a verified MyGovID account.

That figure is less than 10% of issued PSCs.

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