Senior civil servants and lawyers spent several hours in a secret meeting yesterday (29 May 2007) to decide whether to go to the High Court to try and stop the results of early “gateway reviews” on ID cards being published.
They decided in the end to go to the High Court – in a move some will see as wasting public money on an unnecessary legal fight to prolong the government’s culture of secrecy.
Gateway reviews are independent assessments of risky IT-based projects and programmes at various stages in their lifecycle. The reviews are managed by the Treasury’s Office of Government Commerce which wants the results of the assessments kept secret.
Last July the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of a request under the Freedom of Information Act for early gateway reviews on ID cards to be published. The Office of Government Commerce appealed against the Commissioner’s ruling – but lost.
That left the OGC with 30 days to decide whether to appeal again, this time to the High Court. The 30 days was up today [30 May 2007]
We’d have expected a decision long before the 30 May deadline. Somehow one expects the Office of Government Commerce and the Treasury to be prepared for all eventualities of Whitehall life.
A decision to go to the High Court is not a straightforward one. It must be on a point of law, not simply because the OGC disagrees with the verdict of the Information Tribunal.
Clearly the mandarins were not all pictures of equanimity, not yesterday at any rate. By lunchtime – the day before the deadline – no decision had been taken. By late afternoon, according to a spokesman at the Office of Government Commerce, no decision had been taken.
We think the Office of Government Commerce should have given in and accepted that secrecy partners lack of accountability, and that both are worst practice when it comes to managing big and risky public sector IT-based change projects and programmes.
But the Financial Times quotes the Office of Government Commerce as saying that it would appeal as: “we do not agree with the tribunal’s findings on where the public interest lies in relation to what information should be disclosed and what it is appropriate to withhold.
“So far, the gateway process has helped achieve over £2.5bn in value for money savings. In the government’s view, disclosure would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the process, as confidentiality is essential to it.”
Computer Weekly will be publishing evidence in the next few weeks to support the findings of the Information Commissioner – and the Information Tribunal – that the results of gateway reviews should be published. Even the IT staff, users and potential users of systems have no automatic right at present to see the results of reviews at present.
We believe that the Office of Government Commerce has wasted public money, and is continuing to waste public money on its legal fight to stop the reviews being published.