Campaign: Government must publish ID card reviews

The Office of Government Commerce is almost obsessive in its anxiety to keep secret Gateway reviews - which are already five years old - on the feasibility of the ID Cards scheme.

The Office of Government Commerce is almost obsessive in its anxiety to keep secret Gateway reviews - which are already five years old - on the feasibility of the ID Cards scheme.

It has lost an appeal before the Information Commissioner and it has since lost two further appeals to the Information Tribunal. Yet still it is keeping the two Gateway "zero" releases a secret.

This is no longer an argument just about Gateway reviews. It is about the credibility of the Office of Government Commerce. Few will dispute that the OGC has an important job to do in government: advising departments on how to save money and make successes of their projects and programmes.

Yet its arguments against the release of Gateway reviews seem designed to ridicule itself - in the self-deprecating style of Woody Allen.

These are the words of Sir William Yonge, who was speaking in the House of Commons more than 200 years ago against newspapers which published the proceedings of Parliament. The words sound strikingly similar to the arguments put forward by the OGC against the publication of Gateway reviews.

Yonge said: "There are very often gross misrepresentations, both of the sense and language of gentlemen [MPs]. This is very liable to give the publick false impressions both of Gentlemens conduct and abilities. Therefore, Sir, in my opinion, it is now high time to put a stop to it."

These words could have come from the lips of OGC executives. Indeed the OGC's formal arguments against the publication of Gateway reviews include claims that their contents could be misconstrued for political gain, that they may not be understood by the public, and that they could be interpreted in a negative way by the media. These were all arguments put MPs in the 18th century to stop the reporting of Parliament.

Publish the reviews now

Today we are allowed to report Parliament, not least because MPs realise that it's in the public interest for the public to know what is being said on their behalf by MPs. In the same way it's in the public interest to know what the Gateway reviews say about the feasibility of ID Cards, and to see how and on what basis the programme was approved by the government.

OGC should publish the reviews now. If it goes to appeal, yet again, that will waste more public money on arguing the unarguable. And the OGC will continue to look foolish and anachronistic. It now has a chance to show that its mindset is not locked in the 18th century. The Publick have a right to know. Publish the Gateway reviews.

The credibility of the Office of Government Commerce has taken a beating, in a ruling this month that two early Gateway reviews on the ID Cards should be made public.

The OGC is the government's adviser on IT. Its chief executive briefs the Prime Minister on the progress of the public sector's most important IT and other projects. Helping departments and agencies to deliver projects and programmes successfully, in is one of the reasons the OGC exists. Respect is its chief asset.

But it has made a fool of itself in its determination to stop Gateway reviews being published. Gateway reviews are assessments of medium and high-risk IT and other schemes at various stages in their lifecycle. Reviewers will comment on a project's feasibility, readiness to go live and whether benefits have been achieved.

The OGC has spent £140,000 on legal costs - so far - in trying to keep the review reports confidential. The Information Commissioner has ordered that the reviews should be made public, as has the Information Tribunal - twice.

Arguments made

In its latest ruling on Gateway reviews, the Information Tribunal has rejected nearly every point made by the OGC. In so doing the ruling makes a mockery not only of the OGC's arguments but of the OGC, which is depicted as anachronistic and almost monomaniac in its anxiety to keep Gateway review reports confidential.

The OGC lost the case although it fielded several high-powered government witnesses. Its opponent, the Information Commissioner, won on the strength of its arguments, fielding no witnesses at all.

One OGC witness made a point of telling the Tribunal that ministers are often interviewed for Gateway reviews on high risk programmes. He said that disclosure of Gateway reviews could therefore undermine the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility (because ministers may say something in an interview for a Gateway review which does not necessarily support a Cabinet decision or policy).

But the Tribunal observed that no minister had been interviewed for the two ID Cards Gateway reviews in question.

The Tribunal also spotted that the OGC's witness statements were worded almost identically. The Tribunal politely rebuked the OGC, urging it to adopt the "simple principle" that "witnesses should express themselves in their own words". The Tribunal added: "It is certainly not as if the resources are lacking to ensure that such a course is complied with."

Public interest

The Tribunal went on to disparage the OGC's claim that the Gateway reviews in question would, if published, add nothing to the debate on the merits of ID Cards. "In the Tribunal's view this misses the point. The debate was and is not purely about the merits.

Public interest is served by knowing how a project has been implemented and is being implemented". The Tribunal said that the reviews if published would "undoubtedly make an important contribution to the debate".

The OGC's point that Gateway reviews need not be released because the National Audit Office scrutinises IT and other projects on behalf of Parliament and the public was also rejected by the Tribunal. " The Tribunal is not impressed by any form of similarity between the Gateway Review and a NAO report".

The Tribunal said they are "entirely different" - an NAO report being retrospective and "totally removed from the content and purpose of a Gateway Review".

To the OGC's point that the early Gateway reviews on ID Cards were or might be hard to understand, the Tribunal said it had "no difficulty understanding the vast bulk of the information they contained."

And rejecting the OGC's claim that the release of reviews would inhibit the candour of reviewers, the Tribunal said they would have "a great incentive to be candid in the knowledge that their actions might at some stage be subject to public scrutiny".

Gateway reviews misunderstood

The OGC had also argued that the Gateway reviews may be misunderstood if they were published. The Tribunal said that a "risk of misunderstanding is not a valid public interest to be taken into account".

Anyone reading the Tribunal's ruling could easily form the view that the OGC as an organisation is either set apart from reality, or, for reasons nobody is sure of, obsessive to the point of irrationality about keeping Gateway reviews confidential.

From the sound work it is doing in many areas, the OGC employs committed and experienced people who show no signs of being irrational.

But their credibility, and the credibility of the organisation, continues to be undermined by the OGC's arguing of the unarguable. The two Gateway reviews on ID Cards in question should be published, if for no reason than to stop the OGC being a continued object of derision.

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