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Computer Weekly to give evidence to Lords on government spin

Tony Collins

A House of Lords committee has asked Computer Weekly to give evidence at a hearing in Parliament today into openness and the quality or otherwise of government communications with the media and the public.

Executive editor Tony Collins is due to appear, together with other witnesses including BBC political editor Nick Robinson, ITV political editor Tom Bradby, Sky News policital editor Adam Boulton, Nigel Hawkes, health editor at The Times and Frank Gardner, the BBC's security correspondent.

The Lords' communications committee, chaired by Lord Fowler, asked Computer Weekly to give evidence following articles on ComputerWeekly.com and the IT Projects blog including examples of how government communications operate in practice.

In campaigning for measures to reduce the number of failures of some government IT-related projects, Computer Weekly has called for more openness on risky IT programmes.

The articles provided evidence of ministers giving incorrect information to Parliament, and senior officials or PR specialists taking action to suppress independent criticism on major IT projects, including the NHS's National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

Computer Weekly has also raised concerns over how the programme was announced before any serious consultation with the medical profession, IT executives, and the public.

One concern about too much secrecy and insufficient external scrutiny is that incorrect political assumptions about how quickly a project can be implemented, and what direction it should take, may go unchallenged. There is also a danger that complacency can blight the way some departments and agencies are managed.

Senior staff at HM Revenue and Customs, for example, were unaware of the seriousness of the department's systemic managerial weaknesses until the publication last month of the independent Poynter report into two missing CDs containing the details of 25 million people

Some sets of minutes of meetings of the NPfIT programme board are so positive throughout that they exclude any reference to delays and the impact of them on trusts.

The Lords inquiry will focus on the implementation of the reforms to government communications recommended by a review in 2004 by Sir Robert Phillis, former chief executive of the Guardian Media Group

The committee's members want to know far the recommendations in the Phillis review have been implemented. The seven key principles for government communications set out in the Phillis review are:

  • Openness, not secrecy.
  • More direct, unmediated communications with the public.
  • Genuine engagement with the public as part of policy formation and delivery, not communication as an afterthought.
  • Positive presentation of government policies and achievements, not misleading spin.
  • Use of all relevant channels of communication, not excessive emphasis on national press and broadcasters.
  • Co-ordinated communication of issues that cut across departments, not conflicting or duplicated departmental messages.
  • Reinforcement of the Civil Service's political neutrality, rather than a blurring of government and party communications.

Lord Fowler said: "We want to know if the culture of secrecy and partial disclosure has been changed We will also examine the rules governing the conduct of special advisers and whether their role in relationship to civil servants is now clear. It is vital that the government communications system should be both open and impartial".





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