PAC joins battle for Gateway reviews

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee demand that details of major government projects be made public.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee demand that details of major government projects be made public.

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee are on a collision course with the government over demands for transparency and accountability on public sector IT projects.

The dispute centres on whether Gateway reviews - assessments by the Office of Government Commerce of IT projects at stages in their lifecycle - should be published. This is one of the principal elements of Computer Weekly's Shaking Up Government IT campaign.

PAC chairman Edward Leigh said last week that the reviews should be in the public domain and that the OGC should have "teeth", which would enable it to force the adoption of good practice in IT project management across Whitehall departments. This would make it less likely that departmental heads ignore lessons from past IT failures.

Ministers, top civil servants, and the OGC have rejected the publication of Gateway reviews, though MPs have repeatedly expressed frustration that they receive no information on failing IT projects until their constituents are affected by poor services.

Reports by the public spending watchdog National Audit Office have catalogued why IT projects fail, but come too late for remedial action to be taken.

Leigh made his remarks at the end of a PAC hearing where MPs questioned John Oughton, chief executive of the OGC, and John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office.

The PAC members pressed Oughton and Bourn to devise a way of bringing greater Parliamentary scrutiny to large IT-related projects that are in serious danger of failing.

The two senior civil servants agreed that arrangements could be put in place "very quickly", but MPs were concerned about how effective these arrangements would be.

Bourn emphasised he had access to all papers relating to IT projects that were in deep trouble. "It is available to us to report on their progress, but I suppose more focus could be given to that if it became part of procedure," he said.

Creating a project notification structure and a quarterly report to the committee on troubled IT projects would be practical, "because there would not be an enormous number of projects with that degree of danger attached to them," Bourn said.

However, there could be tension between Oughton, Bourn and MPs over which problem projects would be reported to Parliament. Oughton indicated that he wanted the alerts to be confined to a narrow band of projects which had received two consecutive "red lights" in Gateway reviews.

But Tory member of the committee Richard Bacon said several projects that had failed when they were introduced, including systems to support the Criminal Records Bureau and Tax Credits, had passed Gateway reviews with green lights.

Like Leigh, he wants Gateway reviews published so Parliament can scrutinise the progress of all major high-risk IT projects.

During the hearing, Bacon quizzed Oughton about whether he would publish Gateway reviews under the Freedom of Information Act, which comes into full force on 1 January 2005.

Oughton replied that he was looking at exemptions under the Act. This could allow some reviews to be kept secret. He said each request under the Act would be considered on a "case-by-case basis".

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