A CIOstands up for openness

Opinion

A CIOstands up for openness

Steve Lamey, chief information officer at the newly merged HM Revenue and Customs, has set himself the task of removing major inefficiencies. He has discovered, for example, that staff in each of the UK's 72 tax offices do things differently.

But reforming the administration of HM Revenue and Customs is not his biggest task: it is reforming a civil service culture that will try to defeat him.

Two weeks ago Lamey listed the inefficiencies he is intent on tackling in his department. He spoke at a public forum, the Government UK IT Summit, of the statistics that "worry me every day", including the "interesting fact that only 65% of [letters] get to where they are supposed to".

When Computer Weekly reported on a small number of the inefficiencies on Lamey's list, the press office of HM Revenue and Customs reacted as Whitehall is programmed to do when the media portrays the administration of central government as less than perfect. It issued a statement saying that Lamey's comments had been taken out of context and misinterpreted.

MPs wonder why government IT projects fail, often with a devastating effect on the most vulnerable people in society, who rely on the efficient delivery of services. One answer is that departments feel duty-bound to hide their inefficiencies. They control information about themselves. The only truth is their version of it.

Departmental heads automatically deny they are in the midst of a failed project, or have made mistakes, or have administrative problems, even when these things are obvious to the outside world. It is a centuries-old tradition that the process of government should be a truth-avoidance industry.

So we applaud Lamey for being frank and open, but Whitehall has a habit of hammering down nails that stick out. It is inevitable he will come under pressure to try to change things quietly while not acknowledging that significant change is needed. But can he cure a department of mediocrity if it sees itself as almost perfect?

When Computer Weekly shines a torch in the face of an administration that likes to operate in the dark, its instinct is to cover its eyes. We set Lamey the challenge of continuing to break this tradition.

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This was first published in June 2005

 

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