Kirkwood: this is just the start

Sir Archy Kirkwood, chair of a Commons committee, tells ministers: act on our recommendations or face more scrutiny

Sir Archy Kirkwood, chair of a Commons committee, tells ministers: act on our recommendations or face more scrutiny

Ministers and Whitehall officials have been given a blunt warning: take seriously the recommendations in the report of the Work and Pensions committee, or face ever-tougher scrutiny. So said MP Sir Archy Kirkwood, who chairs the committee.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Kirkwood said the recommendations in the 99-page report are fair-minded but robust. "If we do not feel that the response from government, within two months of today, is adequate, we will simply return to the attack. This is not a piece of work that is completed. It is the start of work in progress."

The report was published last week with 36 recommendations and conclusions. If the recommendations are implemented, the committee's members believe that they would help improve the success rate of government IT projects.

Kirkwood said other committees may now put IT at the forefront of their political agenda, and may require more openness and transparency to see if projects costing millions of pounds are being properly managed.

"I hope other sister committee chairmen will take the same view across the major departmental spending committees that IT projects and reports of this kind are now going to become much more commonplace if Parliament is to have any confidence that it can stay informed of what is being done in its name," he said.

He said the public spending watchdog the National Audit Office and the Commons' Public Accounts Committee do important work in highlighting the lessons learned from failed projects. But they sometimes report years after projects have begun, and they do not report on all the major IT-led failures in central government.

Kirkwood referred to Computer Weekly's campaign for ministers and departmental heads to be more open, honest and transparent in their reporting on projects. These virtues "you rightly identified need to be embedded in the culture of departments across Whitehall," he said. "The kind of campaigns your publication has been running really now cannot be ignored."

Kirkwood said the committee was struck by the inadequacies projects have suffered from in the past. Huge sums of public money are being spent on IT projects, but there is a "lack of traceability, accountability and openness". If there is to be a successful reform of government, as recommended by Peter Gershon, former head of the Office of Government Commerce, "we need to have a step change in how we develop these IT projects across government".

He added, "We politicians have treated projects in the past as administrative matters. They were below the visibility line of politics. It was not a sexy issue. But I think those days are gone".

In future IT projects will be front-line political issues and must be treated by Parliament as such, the MP said.

Kirkwood laid out two ways to change the culture of departments. "There is an easy way which is, as you [Computer Weekly] have suggested to us in evidence, that the department becomes much more open and honest."

If departmental heads start acting in good faith in that direction, "we can engage constructively and develop a more open and transparent system that everybody is more satisfied with".

But if they do not, Kirkwood said a statutory framework might be considered by the committee. Emphasising that, in referring to legislation, he was speaking personally, not on behalf of the committee, he warned ministers and officials against ignoring or dismissing the committee's recommendations.

"If they do not come back and start engaging in these arguments in an serious and meaningful way, acting in good faith, then I believe the committee will go back and say: well if we cannot do it by a proper process of dialogue then we will do it the statutory way."

Kirkwood on IT delivering job cuts       

MP Sir Archy Kirkwood has questioned whether the government has taken sufficient account of the risks of failure in IT implementations in its efficiency review. The review seeks to streamline Whitehall and cut thousands of jobs. 

He said some of the assumptions about the ease with which new IT systems will help deliver cuts in civil service numbers, as announced by chancellor Gordon Brown in the latest Spending Review, are "removed from the reality of the practice in the past".

These assumptions "take risks with public service delivery that potentially can affect the most vulnerable households in our communities".  

He did not think, on the basis of the evidence put to the Work and Pensions committee, that the efficiency drive will have any realistic prospect of success unless some Whitehall practices change dramatically.

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