Campaign: Government made to look foolish over ID card reviews

The credibility of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has taken a beating, after a ruling this month that two early gateway...

The credibility of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has taken a beating, after a ruling this month that two early gateway reviews on the ID Cards should be made public.

The OGC is the government's adviser on IT. Its chief executive briefs the Prime Minister on the progress of the public sector's most important IT and other projects. Helping departments and agencies to deliver projects and programmes successfully is, in part, one of the reasons the OGC exists. Respect is its chief asset.

But in its determination to stop gateway reviews being published the OGC has been made to look foolish. Gateway reviews are assessments of medium and high-risk IT and other schemes at various stages in their lifecycle. Reviewers will comment on a project's feasibility, readiness to go live and whether benefits have been achieved.

The OGC has spent £140,000 on legal costs - so far - in trying to keep the review reports confidential. The Information Commissioner has ordered that the reviews should be made public, as has the Information Tribunal - twice.

Confidentiality claim rejected

In its latest ruling on gateway reviews, the Information Tribunal has rejected nearly every point made by the OGC. Its ruling makes a mockery not only of the OGC's arguments, but of the OGC, which is depicted as anachronistic and almost monomaniac in its anxiety to keep gateway review reports confidential.

The OGC lost the case although it fielded several high-powered government witnesses. Its opponent, the Information Commissioner, won on the strength of its arguments, fielding no witnesses at all.

The Tribunal spotted that passages in the OGC's witness statements were worded almost identically. The Tribunal politely rebuked the OGC, urging it to adopt the "simple principle" that "witnesses should express themselves in their own words". The Tribunal added: "It is certainly not as if the resources are lacking to ensure that such a course is complied with."

The Tribunal went on to disparage the OGC's claim that the gateway reviews in question would, if published, add nothing to the debate on the merits of ID Cards: "In the Tribunal's view this misses the point. The debate was and is not purely about the merits. Public interest is served by knowing how a project has been implemented and is being implemented."

Important contribution

The Tribunal said that the reviews, if published, would "undoubtedly make an important contribution to the debate".

The OGC's point that gateway reviews need not be released because the National Audit Office scrutinises IT and other projects on behalf of parliament and the public was also rejected by the Tribunal.

"The Tribunal is not impressed by any form of similarity between the Gateway Review and an NAO report." It said they are "entirely different" - an NAO report being retrospective and "totally removed from the content and purpose of a gateway review".

To the OGC's point that the early gateway reviews on ID Cards were or might be hard to understand, the Tribunal said it had "no difficulty understanding the vast bulk of the information they contained".

And rejecting the OGC's claim that the release of reviews would inhibit the candour of reviewers, the Tribunal said they would have "a great incentive to be candid in the knowledge that their actions might at some stage be subject to public scrutiny".

The OGC had further argued that the gateway reviews may be misunderstood if they were published. The Tribunal said that a "risk of misunderstanding is not a valid public interest to be taken into account".

Anyone reading the Tribunal's ruling could easily form the view that the OGC as an organisation is either set apart from reality, or, for reasons nobody is sure of, obsessive to the point of irrationality about keeping gateway reviews confidential.

A question of credibility

But from the sound work it is doing in many areas, it would appear the OGC employs committed and experienced people who show no signs of being irrational.

But their credibility, and the credibility of the organisation, continues to be undermined by the OGC's arguing of the unarguable. The two gateway reviews on ID Cards in question should be published, if for no reason than to stop the OGC being a continued object of derision.

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