In a speech in May 2007, accepting his nomination as leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown promised a “different type of politics – a more open and honest dialogue: frank about problems, candid about dilemmas, never losing touch with the concerns of people”.
Gordon Brown has also said that “Government must be more open and accountable to Parliament”.
We agree. As Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, said in a speech in Newcastle on 18 October 2004: “The more there is a culture of openness, the better decision-making will be. If decisions have to be publicly explained, they will be better taken. Real informed accountability improves standards.”
All this is inconsistent, however, with a decision by the Treasury, when under Gordon Brown’s stewardship, to fund an expensive legal action in the High Court to protect government IT secrets from Parliament and the rest of us.
The Treasury’s Office of Government Commerce [OGC] is going to the High Court to try and countermand an order by the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal that early gateway reviews on ID cards be published. Gateway reviews are assessments by the OGC of medium and high risk IT and other projects.
If the OGC wins, those who try to discover how well billions of pounds of risky IT-based projects and programmes are progressing will continue to be blocked. If Lord Falconer is right and a culture of openness improves decision making, it could also follow that a culture of secrecy impedes good decision-making.
And if Lord Falconer is also right that real informed accountability improves standards – accountability for example to potential end-users of major public sector IT systems and MPs – it could also follow that a lack of accountability over IT projects and programmes retards improvement in standards.
The Treasury argues that there is already enough accountability on IT projects and programmes.
And it is true that there are occasional reports of the National Audit Office. But the NAO will, typically in a year, publish fewer than 10 one-off reports on major IT projects and programmes. There are more than 100 major IT-based projects and programmes within government. It’s also true that MPs can ask Parliamentary questions. But IT-related answers from ministers usually use facts selectively to reinforce political messages.
It’s also true that there are sometimes Parliamentary debates and committee hearings on big IT projects. But, again, these are opportunities for the government’s spokespeople to dismiss criticisms and promulgate political messages anew.
The clear advantage of Gateway reviews is that they designed to be independent, apolitical.
They are an authoritative source of information on the strengths and weaknesses with “mission-critical” technology-based projects such as the NHS’s National Programme for IT, ID cards and systems for the Olympics. This could in part explain why some ministers and the OGC want the results of gateway reviews to remain hidden.
Bureaucracies, if allowed, will always veer towards secrecy. They will use the excuse that officials can be more candid when giving advice in secret.
The reverse is more likely to be true. If officials know their advice will be subjected to external scrutiny they may be more careful to ensure that their recommendations and comments in gateway reviews will bear critical examination by MPs, the media, taxpayers and others.
Besides, the best IT people in government – and we know some who do gateway reviews – will want to be professional and disinterested in their assessments of projects and programmes, whether the final report is published or not. They will not want it thought that they would make one assessment in private and a slightly different judgement in public.
Even in 1940, during the worst months of the Battle of Britain, when this country’s future had never seemed more uncertain, secrecy was anathema to dozens of MPs. They were reluctant to go into secret sessions of the House of Commons. On 30 July 1940 MPs agonized in a long debate over whether they should go into secret session for a discussion over foreign affairs.
The then Prime Minister Winston Churchill joked at the start of the debate that the government wanted a secret session so that members of all parties could say what they felt about foreign countries “without any danger of adding to the number of countries with which we at present at war”. But he allowed a free vote.
On something so trivial in comparison – gateway review reports – the OGC’s officials are content to bring down the full protection of state secrecy.
One result of the continued secrecy over the reviews is that their recommendations will be seen only by those who have a need to know. All but two copies of gateway reviews reports are shredded, as is the supporting material, immediately the final report is completed.
But this degree of State secrecy is quite extraordinary. Secrecy over the Britain’s nuclear secrets is understandable. But over progress reports on government IT programmes?
We hope that Gordon Brown will rise above the small-minded, self-interested introspection of the Treasury and the OGC’s Sir Humphries.
He cannot claim to be open and accountable to Parliament, and frank about Whitehall’s problems, while allowing the OGC to do all it can to stop MPs finding out what gateway reviews say on the projects that soak up some of £12bn spent each year on public sector IT systems, services, and programmes.
Gordon Brown should not let the OGC go ahead with the High Court case. To allow the action to go ahead while proclaiming the need for open government will indicate to us that there has not been any real change at Number 10.
Thank you to Sophie Bridges, Archivist, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, for letting us have copies of the “Secret Session” debate in the House of Commons on 30 July 1940.