New Act opens PFI deals to public view

Government departments cannot hide behind confidentiality clauses

Government departments cannot hide behind confidentiality clauses

The Freedom of Information Act could force government departments to disclose information about their IT contracts which had previously been regarded as confidential.

The new law, which is being phased in between now and 2005, promises to shed new light on major IT procurement and private finance initiative projects.

Industry observers claim that greater openness could help government departments avoid some of the disastrous IT contracts of the past.

"The more open the contracting process can be, the more likely you are to have forced people to think through the implications before they sign contracts," said Mike Allen, public sector IT consultant.

Lawyers are advising government departments that they will not be able to rely on a blanket claim that their IT contracts are commercially confidential to prevent disclosure under the Act.

"Simply stating that something is confidential does not make it confidential," said Rosemary Jay, data protection lawyer at City law firm, Masons.

The firm is advising government IT departments to think twice before accepting contracts from IT suppliers with heavy confidentiality clauses.

IT directors could be storing up trouble for themselves if they promise confidentiality, only to find that they are ordered to disclose information by the Information Commissioner or the courts, she said.

But Allen, a former, director of information systems at the then Department of Employment, now a consultant at Oakleigh Consulting, said the Act could only be a good thing for government.

"The real risks are not understanding what you are buying before you start. Openness will force people to think that bit more carefully about what they are buying and how they specify it," Allen said.

Brinley Platts, business development director at the IT executive development network the Impact Group, agreed that openness could lead to improvements in public sector contracts.

But he warned that some outsourcers IT and services firms may be reluctant to offer the public sector special deals if there was a danger of the details becoming public.

The Public Accounts Committee found that the public sector has failed to learn from mistakes following poor project performance.

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