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Award attests to need for change

Computer Weekly's long and hard-fought campaign to achieve more openness and accountability on government IT projects has been recognised in the magazine "Oscars" ceremony in London.

Computer Weekly won the prestigious Editorial Campaign of the Year title, awarded by the Periodical Publishers Association, in competition with national and international magazines covering every area of interest.

The award was made for Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign, which, in the face of government secrecy, has thrown the spotlight on waste and mismanagement.

The award is recognition that transparency is critical to the success of major government IT projects in which billions of pounds are at stake. For decades Whitehall projects have been marred by an inability of Parliament, a project's stakeholders, the media and the public to know how a major IT-related programme is really faring.

If the private sector were to take its lead from Whitehall, the heads of large organisations could embark on enormously risky projects costing huge sums of money, safe in the knowledge that if it all went terribly wrong they would not have tell the full truth, nor even a semblance of it, to anyone. And they could not be fired over any IT-related failure.

That is unimaginable, but governments can decide to spend huge sums without first asking Parliament and, as the project continues, without accounting to anyone on how the money is being spent. Occasionally there is a one-off investigation by spending watchdog the National Audit Office, but that is usually after the damage has been done.

Our campaign has made some headway but there is a long way to go: the Office of Government Commerce, for example, stands in the way of openness, although it does some excellent work in advising departments on how to avoid IT disasters. It also undertakes Gateway reviews, which are independent checks on how projects are faring.

Backed by two Parliamentary committees, Computer Weekly has called for these reviews to be published. The OGC has refused: it believes that everything is going so swimmingly in government that there is no need for greater openness.

But where is the evidence all is well? Should we trust what the OGC tells us? Or is it a defensive organisation which prefers to keep the curtains shut lest any neighbours try to look inside?

Computer Weekly aims to make a difference. And that has been recognised in the latest award. But one publication, however influential, cannot reform government. That needs to be done from the inside.

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