G-Cloud goes AWOL

The coalition government is only applying its transparency programme where the release of information might be convenient.

That explains why Cabinet Office has refused to publish its draft plan for a government cloud, despite sitting on it for months.

Could the plans be too sensitive for government because they’ll lead to public sector job cuts? That’s what some say. Cloud giants Amazon, Google and Microsoft would lap up public sector data and house it overseas. The Cabinet Office doesn’t even know what the effect will be on UK industry. Does it really know what it’s doing?

Computer Weekly reporter Kat Hall sought to get the answers to some of these questions in an FOI request to the Cabinet Office. Her request was of course refused.

Cabinet Office said after careful deliberation it had concluded there was a public interest in keeping the plans private. This would protect “the confidence of scholars, journalists, and the general public”.

We think it must be mistaken. To protect the confidence of the general public from general publication of the draft plan, the general public must have been given an opportunity to comment on it in the first place.

It cited Section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows public bodies to deny access to information intended for future publication, as long as they can claim their secrecy is in the public interest.

Publishing the draft plans now could undermine them, said the Cabinet Office, which has made a song and a dance about how transparency strengthens trust in government and encourages “greater public participation in decision-making”.

The reality is quite the opposite. And Cabinet Office would have a trouble arguing that continued secrecy over the G-Cloud programme is in the public interest. But it doesn’t need to make a case for secrecy under FOI law, it only needs to say it is justified.

The public interest in publishing the draft plans is so compelling you have to wonder how seriously the Cabinet Office is taking its responsibilities under the FOI Act.

The G-Cloud promises to have immense consequences for government, industry and even democracy. Handled wrong, it could be a wasted opportunity to invigorate 21st Century Britain. It could concentrate public sector spending in the hands of just a few IT suppliers and result in £billions of public money being spent oversees that may otherwise be invested in local firms, as Cabinet Office claims is an aspiration of its ICT Strategy.

Instead of the “open source politics” punted by Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron before the 2010 election, an infantilised Britain would carry the cost of rising crime, benefit claims and hi-tech security by aggregating its purchasing power and selling it to one cloud provider. We would have UKGov-as-a-service, rented by the hour down the transatlantic pipe.

The country should be allowed to play a full part in deliberations over the plans. This was after all what the Cabinet Office transparency programme seemed to be about: improving government by making it participatory.

Cabinet Office have been developing the G-Cloud plans for two years without allowing public debate. Clearly the public interest is in transparency.

The cloud plan was last scheduled for publication in March. When the government published its ICT strategy on 30 March, it said the cloud plan wouldn’t come till September. Before that it was going to Autumn 2010.

Phase 2 of the scheme, which ran from October 2009 to July 2010 involved input from 100 people across industry and included meetings with members of Intellect, a trade body. But these meetings were closed and the results of the exercise remained unpublished for long after their intended disclosure in the Autumn.

Cabinet Office meanwhile used the Phase 2 work to produce a steady drip of public statements designed to impress the public about the wisdom of the plans without ever allowing any real debate.

It was only after Computer Weekly obtained these documents under FOI and published them in February that debate was allowed to progress a little. But then the Cabinet Office went back to developing them in private, with what is most likely a much smaller cabal of suppliers than were privy to the last lot of plans.

No matter what lip service Cabinet Office pays to it, the private sector will stop the transparency initiative getting anywhere. Public debate is snuffed by those private companies close to government. They are as parsimonious with information that might aid the public good as they are with anything else.

Cabinet Office has been intending to publish its G-Cloud plans for a long time. But instead of publishing them and allowing open debate among industry and electorate, it keeps revising them. When they are finally delivered, it will be as a fait accompli. By then their publication will be pointless for anything but a justification of policy.