Transparency arranged in secret

Fancy that. Francis Maude’s open data revolution is being conducted in secret. That’s fine. Everyone knows power can be handed to the people only once the battle is won on their behalf.

The stakes are too high and all that. We trust in the meantime that the revolutionary council will work in our best and not their own vested interests.

There are in fact two revolutionary councils. The CIO Council and CTO Council. These are the Cabinet Office boards on which sit the overpaid nobbins who gave us such wonders as the NHS National Programme for IT, the Child Support Agency and the Identity Cards Scheme.

They’ll have plenty to cock up under the ConDem’s as well. Besides the open data revolution, we’ve got the promise of more gargantuan gaffs like the Universal Credit Scheme and Interception Modernisation Programme.

Don’t be deceived by their bad suits and Coldplay concert tickets. These CIOs call the shots. Thus your humble correspondent has on innumerable occasions over the last five years asked the Cabinet Office for a calendar, agendas and minutes of their meetings.

They don’t normally bother replying. But Maude has really got his staff swinging to his transparency number. So they sent a refusal instead of implying it. There’s a progressive government for you.

“It looks like this information is no-longer posted up on our website,” said a Cabinet Office press officer in an email today. No sheet, Sherlock.

The information was apparently on its website for a moment in early 2009 after Ian Cuddy, then chief agitator at Public Sector Forums, was reduced to using a Freedom of Information request to get it. It was promptly removed so the CIOs could go back to their public bodging in private.

“But you can get access to it by putting in a FOI request,” the Cabinet Office press office concluded in its email today.

Out of order

The National Archives have no record of the minutes the Cabinet Office published in answer to Cuddy’s 2009 request, even though it recorded what there was of the CIO Council section of the Cabinet Office website on 5 Jan 2009 (two months before the Cabinet Office answered Cuddy’s request) and 9 April (a fortnight later). The site was only ever a publicity tool anyway.

Remember how barely four weeks ago Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the Conservative Party Conference that “citizens…are entitled to expect the state to be open with them”?

He spoke in the great tradition of empty rhetoric of which our ConDem government is proving so adept. Hark back to the exhilaration of the coalition’s founding statement on transparency.

“We will extend transparency to every area of public life,” it said.

“The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. We also recognize that this will help to deliver better value for money in public spending, and help us achieve our aim of cutting the record deficit.”

Fine words. But the coalition’s policy commitments amounted to little more than a bit of tinkering and the open data sop, to which we shall return.

Out of fashion

The CIO Councils are meanwhile getting on with the job they appointed themselves to do in 2005, at the start of New Labour’s five-year programme of Transformational Government: wasting billions, replacing jobs with computers and frightening the horses with Big Brother spookiness.

Think of the lives ruined by the CSA shambles. Etc. And ponder what is the legacy of this secretive boys club once you dismiss the cock-ups. Can it be little more than a bunch of websites and databases, a few hundred thousand personal computers loaded with Microsoft software and a cabal of large suppliers fattened on cushy outsourcing contracts?

Your guess is as good as anyones.

At least John Suffolk, the government CIO and grand master of the CIO Lodge, has got the new spirit of openness. He has a blog.