Brown must be open on IT projects

If new prime minister Gordon Brown is to make good on his promise of a candid and honest government, he must allow Gateway reviews to be published

In a speech in May 2007 accepting his nomination as leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown promised a "different type of politics - a more open and honest dialogue: frank about problems, candid about dilemmas, never losing touch with the concerns of people".

Brown has also said, "Government must be more open and accountable to parliament."

We agree. As Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, said in a speech in Newcastle on 18 October 2004, "The more there is a culture of openness, the better decision making will be. If decisions have to be publicly explained, they will be better taken. Real, informed accountability improves standards."

All this is inconsistent, however, with a decision by the Treasury, when under Brown's stewardship, to fund an expensive legal action in the High Court to protect government IT secrets.

The Treasury's Office of Government Commerce (OGC) is going to the High Court to try to countermand an order by the information commissioner and the Information Tribunal that early Gateway reviews on ID cards be published. Gateway reviews are assessments by the OGC of medium and high-risk IT and other projects.

If the OGC wins, those who try to discover how well risky IT-based projects worth billions of pounds are progressing will continue to be blocked. If Falconer is right, and a culture of openness improves decision making, it could also follow that a culture of secrecy impedes good decision making.

And if Falconer is also right that real, informed accountability improves standards - accountability, for example, to MPs and potential end-users of major public sector IT systems - it could also follow that a lack of accountability over IT projects retards improvement in standards.

The Treasury argues that there is already enough accountability on IT projects. And it is true that there are occasional reports from the National Audit Office (NAO).

But the NAO will typically publish fewer than 10 one-off reports on major IT projects in a year, and there are more than 100 major IT-based projects within government.

It is also true that MPs can ask parliamentary questions. But IT-related answers from ministers usually use facts selectively to reinforce political messages.

The clear advantage of Gateway reviews is that they designed to be independent and apolitical. They are an authoritative source of information on the strengths and weaknesses of mission-critical technology-based projects such as the NHS's National Programme for IT, ID cards and systems for the ­Olympics.

This could in part explain why some ministers and the OGC want the results of Gateway reviews to remain hidden.

We hope that Brown will rise above the small-minded, self-interested introspection of the Treasury and the OGC's Sir Humphries.

Brown cannot claim to be open and accountable to parliament and frank about Whitehall's problems while allowing the OGC to do all it can to stop MPs finding out what Gateway reviews say on the projects that soak up some of the £12bn spent each year on public sector IT systems, services, and programmes.

NHS IT: an open letter to Gordon Brown >>

Decision not to publish Gateway reviews does not bear scrutiny - and here's why >>

Tony Collins' IT projects blog >>
Against the current: exploring the challenges of complex IT projects

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

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