The government has been ordered to disclose confidential reports into the viability of its £5.8bn ID card programme.
In a precedent-setting case, the Information Tribunal has dismissed an appeal by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), ordering it to publish its Gateway reviews of the programme.
The tribunal ruled, in a 40-page decision published today, that the public interest in disclosing the reports - which assess the business case for ID cards - outweighed the public interest in keeping them secret.
The case will put pressure on the government to routinely make Gateway reviews into government IT projects available to the public.
“Disclosure is likely to enhance public debate of issues such as the programme’s feasibility and how it is managed,” the information commissioner Richard Thomas said today in response to the decision.
The Office of Government Commerce argued during a four-day hearing that disclosure would fundamentally undermine the Gateway review process.
It claimed that civil servants would be inhibited from offering frank and candid views on the progress of IT projects if their views might become public.
Peter Gershon, the former civil servant responsible for introducing Gateway reviews of government IT projects, told the tribunal that any publication of adverse comments in reports would provoke a backlash from the government department under scrutiny.
"They will say 'we will go public and make it clear we don't agree with the report,'" he said.
"The whole department will muster its defences and resources, so it becomes public that we don't agree with it."
Gateway reviews offered a safe space for government officials to speak candidly and unguardedly, said Gershon. The government could either be open or have an effective scrutiny process – but not both, he said.
The tribunal found, however, that the “safe space” the OGC argued was necessary to protect the early stages of policy formulation could not be justified at a time when the Identity Cards Bill was being openly debated in parliament.
The tribunal criticised the OGC for developing a Gateway review system that operates on the apparent assumption that there was little or no risk that the results would be made public.
This was at the very least unprofessional, said the tribunal, and was at variance with the aim of the Gateway reviews to encourage and support more professionalism in the way projects were undertaken.
The “grave consequences” the OGC predicted would flow from disclosure were overstated, it concluded.
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