Whitehall gagging order on SME working group ‘flies in face of transparency agenda’


Whitehall gagging order on SME working group ‘flies in face of transparency agenda’

Kathleen Hall

The government has issued a gagging order preventing members of an SME working group from commenting on meeting discussions, despite its recent commitment to an "open government" transparency agenda.

The New Suppliers to Government (NSG) panel was set up to enable Whitehall to increase the number of SMEs awarded public sector contracts.

Mark Taylor (pictured), head of the NSG panel and CEO of open source technology SME Sirius, had previously commented that a move to centralising procurement under the Green Review is hindering the government's target to place 25% of all public sector business with SMEs. "One large SME put it well when they explained to me that they felt 'beaten up and bullied' by government departments," he had said.

But following these comments Taylor was issued a gagging order by a junior Cabinet Office official. The reason was to prevent misunderstanding, he believes.

"The first point to make is that this absolutely flies in the face of the government's transparency agenda," said Taylor. "Francis Maude wanted us to 'hold the government's feet to the fire' when the working group was created," he said.

"But if we're not allowed to talk about what happens in the meetings, how can we achieve the government's aims [to improve SME procurement]? There is an incredible amount of scepticism among SMEs, and transparency is the one thing likely to help get more SMEs involved. There are hundreds of thousands of SMEs, and to be democratic we need feedback and wider engagement," he said.

"The Cabinet Office is part of the solution, not the problem. And I believe people such as Bill McCluggage [deputy government CIO] and Liam Maxwell [charged with improving the government's record on IT delivery] are committed to this agenda. I will be speaking to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude about this decision," he said.

However, this is not the first time that the Cabinet Office has been accused of falling short of its transparency commitments.

John Suffolk, former government CIO, recently hinted that the department had a reputation for obfuscation. "I would not wish to be party to the Cabinet Office getting a reputation for opaqueness, being economical with the truth or avoiding answering FOI [freedom of information] requests," he wrote in a sardonic blog post.

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