The government is tightening controls on Whitehall IT projects amid fears that its existing system of Gateway project reviews are proving inadequate.
As IT spending throughout central and local government and the health service increases, the Office of Government Commerce is re-evaluating the way it monitors the success of projects.
Its aim is to identify and head off problems in public sector IT projects at an early stage, before they turn into the IT disasters that have dominated newspaper headlines in the past 10 years.
But the changes are likely to fall short of demands from IT professionals and MPs for greater transparency in government IT projects. They may also disappoint critics who had been hoping that government departments would be far more open about the problems they face to Parliament.
In a significant shift in policy, it has emerged that the OGC is planning to put pressure on government departments to issue a formal response when their IT projects are given successive red warnings by Gateway reviewers.
The policy shift, disclosed by John Oughton, the newly-appointed chief executive of the OGC, is a step forward from the government's previous insistence that Gateway reviews should be seen purely as independent advice that departments are free to accept or ignore.
Oughton told the Commons Public Accounts Committee last month that the new policy would make it difficult for departments to proceed with projects in the future if they consistently received poor Gateway reviews.
"If a project gets consecutive reds, that automatically triggers a formal letter from the OGC chief executive to the departmental permanent secretary to make sure they are aware of that, and the reason why consecutive reds have occurred," Oughton said.
"This will force the principal accounting officer to make a formal response that they have investigated the situation and that the underlying causes of the consecutive reds have been addressed," he said.
"Our view is that if you have a problem where people are wilfully and knowingly driving through consecutive red traffic lights and eventually the project ends up [at the PAC], I suspect that you will have an absolute field day with the permanent secretary because that will be completely and utterly indefensible."
Oughton's comments came amid growing political pressure to reform the Gateway review system. MPs are concerned that the system is not transparent, and government departments are being less than candid with Parliament about the progress of major IT projects until it is too late.
Transparency along US lines
Computer Weekly began campaigning for the government's IT project evaluation process to be reformed along US lines in January. It presented evidence to MPs calling for the UK to follow the example of the Clinger-Cohen Act by making government bodies more accountable for the success or failure of projects and forcing the public sector to be more transparent about them.
Vincent Cable, Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor and former chief economist of Shell UK, backed Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign by tabling an early day motion in February calling for greater openness in government IT projects.
More recently, members of the work and pensions select committee took up the cause, pressing government officials to publish their Gateway reviews. Archy Kirkwood, chairman of the committee, attacked the culture of secrecy in Whitehall that allowed civil servants and suppliers to hide behind the phrase "commercial confidentiality" to prevent disclosures about IT projects.
He warned government that unless departments were more forthcoming, ministers and senior civil servants would find themselves in court. It was unacceptable, he said, for Parliament to have to wait years for a National Audit Office report before MPs could learn why an IT project had failed.
"If Parliament does not start getting involved in a grown-up conversation in the next six months, we will end up with writs in court for motions of disclosure and you will be forced to do it," Kirkwood told top Department for Work and Pensions officials at a hearing on 1 March.
The government has staunchly resisted publication of Gateway reviews, arguing that unless they remained confidential, the reviewers would feel unable to make full and frank disclosures to departments.
At a subsequent meeting with members of the DWP select committee last month, minister for work and pensions Andrew Smith said he was in favour of "exploring mutually acceptable" ways of putting more performance information in the public domain. But he stopped short of accepting that Gateway reviews should be published.
"There are real issues around the frankness and candour on some of the assessments in Gateway reviews. There might be some inhibition if people thought it would all hang out in the public domain," he said.
In government's best interests
The PAC has now picked up the arguments for reform and greater openness. During last month's session with Oughton and other government officials, it became clear that the PAC is starting to ask whether publication of Gateway reviews would be in the best interests of government.
Yet the OGC is adamant that, ultimately, the control of public sector IT projects must remain within the commissioning government department.
Oughton said the new controls he had introduced would be sufficient to discourage departments from pushing ahead with questionable IT projects, because of commercial or political pressures.
"The accountability has to rest with the department which is spending the money on procurement. And it is right that the accountability should rest with the officer there," he said.
"The whole point about the Gateway process is that in the very short, sharp intervention that the review team conducts, it is designed to give very clear advice to a programme managerÉ in a safe place with a degree of confidentiality, so that people can be honest about the challenges and difficulties with a programme. That has worked very well."
But Oughton accepted the government had not made sufficient progress in communicating best practice in IT projects across Whitehall.
The Gateway toolkit, developed to help government procurement officials make decisions based on best practice, has only been taken up by 45% of government departments so far.
"I think the OGC has done a terrific job in developing best practice guidance. The trick, of course, is turning that into an effective communications channel to departments so they can learn the lessons and embed that into behaviour. I suspect we have not been good at that," said Oughton.
Gershon says no to publishing Gateway reviews
Peter Gershon, former head of the Office of Government Commerce, has told Computer Weekly that Gateway reviews should not be published.
In an exclusive interview he said, "In my personal view they should not be published, because that would change the dynamics of the process. People would be reluctant to undertake reviews and would be against open audit. The reviews are for the benefit of management not for auditors."
Despite his opposition to the publication of Gateway reviews, Gershon, now head of the government's Efficiency Unit, has slated the low success rate of IT projects, citing the 16% success rate from Computer Weekly's report on the State of IT Project Management in the UK, and the 34% success rate in the US from a report by the Standish Group.