In the Cabinet Office at Admiralty Arch in London, on 2 November, John Hutton, then a Cabinet Office minister, parried questions from journalists about the publication of the government's new IT strategy.
One question was whether there would be improved oversight by parliament of any high-risk IT projects that arise from implementation of the strategy. The questioner pointed out to Hutton and his colleague e-government minister Jim Murphy that public spending watchdog the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee investigate fewer than 1% of high- and medium-risk IT-related programmes in the public sector.
Hutton replied, "The more public scrutiny the better." But he said there were no specific plans for greater openness: that was a matter for parliament.
So it is against the background of continued secrecy and infrequent reporting to parliament on the progress of IT projects that Hutton, Murphy and the government's chief information officer, Ian Watmore, announced a series of measures to, among other things, bring together government IT-related activities under the shared services initiative.
One meeting has already been held with suppliers about possible future contracts and a further series is planned. Large sums are expected to be spent on shared services, a new common infrastructure and other "common good" activities - but paid for without increasing the total spend of £14bn on major systems.
So that enough money is set aside for new investment, one of the strategy's main supporting documents recommends that the Treasury should "consider mechanisms, including a system of mandatory levies on existing departmental budgets, to fund common good or infrastructure investments proposed by the CIO Council or the Service Transformation Board".
The CIO Council comprises 28 chief information officers from across central and local government, including the police and NHS, under the chairmanship of Watmore. The Service Transformation Board, which will be set up as part of the implementation of the new IT strategy, will comprise officials who run major public services and have responsibility for business operations.
Ministers and officials at the 2 November announcement may find the question of whether the strategy should be backed by mechanisms to ensure there is public disclosure of troubled projects a side issue, but to MPs it is an important factor in avoiding more IT-related disasters.
Last year the Work and Pensions Select Committee, after one of the longest investigations by parliament of IT failures in the public sector, concluded that openness over how a project is progressing was often an important factor in avoiding disaster.
"Although there is a vast amount of information on best practice, there is only patchy compliance. Openness and accountability are vital tools in ensuring compliance with best practice," said the committee's 99-page report.
Nothing has happened on the report's recommendations for more openness, despite being published 18 months ago.
The government's IT strategy promises to "transform the delivery of public services using technology, and through greater focus upon the customer's perspective". It adds that, "Government must move to shared services culture - in the front office, in the back office, in information and infrastructure - and so release efficiency potential by eliminating duplication and adopting best practice."
The government's strategy states that the £14bn spent every year on major IT systems is "not co-ordinated across the public sector, nor is there any encouragement to departments or individuals to co-ordinate". Despite some 50,000 staff working in IT professional roles there are "well-publicised failures in technologically-driven services".
It continues "The vision set out in the strategy is about using technology better to deliver core public services to have an impact on real people's daily lives."
Few will argue with Watmore's contention that radical reform is needed. The strategy documents refer to a "massive duplication" of effort and wasted money. They say that much of the public service depends on "pen-and-paper Dickensian processes", and antiquated legacy systems abound.
But some will believe that giving a fresh set of large contracts to multinational companies for shared services and common infrastructure systems could, without improved parliamentary oversight, serve the interests of supplier balance sheets better than UK taxpayers.
Costly new systems at the Child Support Agency, and those to support tax credits, were due to save more than they cost. But the National Audit Office has reported on the hundreds of extra staff who had to be hired to cope with problems arising from the introduction of the technology.
With its supporting documents, the government's IT strategy comprises more than 100 pages of worthy words, aims, visions and hopes.
Sceptics will see the strategy's documents as comprising many well-intentioned suggestions and commonplace sayings that commit nobody in government to delivering anything in particular.
An opening passage in the IT strategy says, "This is a time to push forward, faster and on all fronts, open up the system, break down its monoliths, put the parent and pupil and patient and law-abiding citizen at the centre of it. We have made great progress. Let us learn the lessons of it so as not to rest on present achievements."
Optimists, though, will take heart at the nobleness of the objectives.
The document says that strategic use and understanding of technology will allow the government to provide world-class public services, improve social justice, deliver choice and personalisation in public services, and a modern welfare state.
The strategy's implementation will also increase public sector productivity by "reducing transactional costs and overheads, and freeing more resources for the front line".
The core of the document also uses similar wording: it sets out hopes rather than a specific action plan, though there are 31 "overarching" recommendations, most of which contain the words "government must", or that a public sector organisation "should". Many of the actions urged in the recommendations are general and uncontentious. In many cases it will be difficult to measure whether the recommendations have been successfully carried out.
One recommendation is that the government "must develop multiple channels including websites, telephone services and intermediated services and policies for their use for citizen and business access to services, and actively manage the shift in channels towards the most efficient and effective".
How the strategy's objectives, vague or specific, will be achieved will be decided on next year. An action plan is due to be agreed by the CIO Council in January 2006.
There are similarities between the new strategy and the one announced in 2000 by Ian McCartney, then Cabinet Office minister.
In 2000, McCartney announced a "strategic direction for the way the public sector will transform itself by implementing business models which exploit the possibilities of new technology". Five years later, in 2005, the new strategy promises "transformational government enabled by new technology".
The latest strategy says, "In order to learn from the front line, government must systematically engage with public servants on the front line doing the job every day to help design and refine transformed services enabled by technology."
McCartney said in 2000, "We have also set up a series of meetings between ministers and front-line staff to find out about service problems on the ground."
Many of the key messages in 2000 and 2005 remain largely unchanged. Both strategies have promised a common infrastructure, a new approach to developing skills, joined-up government, public services based on the citizen and businesses, not departments, and surveys of the public on what they think of public services.
On the other hand, there have been some important achievements since 2000.
The Office of Government Commerce now conducts Gateway reviews on medium- and high-risk IT projects - though it refuses to publish the results.
About 70% of business incorporations and about 40% of annual returns to Companies House are now electronic; more than one million people file tax returns online. Also, more than a third of driving tests are booked online, new vehicles are registered online, and 60,000 small claims have been issued through Money Claims Online.
Watmore's appointment is also a step forward. Computer Weekly had campaigned in early 2004 for the UK to enact the best parts of the US Clinger-Cohen Act. The legislation was enacted in the US in 1996 after a series of public sector IT disasters. It required the appointment of a government CIO Council - and the UK administration did indeed appoint a government CIO (Watmore) and he set up a CIO Council.
In another step forward, the latest strategy includes a recommendation for annual spending against the plans to be disclosed in a report that is published and audited by the National Audit Office. But Whitehall officials say this annual report is likely to be generalised: no specific departmental failures are expected to be mentioned.
With no plans for greater public disclosure on the progress of IT projects, one has to question whether anything much will change.
In the US, the Clinton administration enacted the Clinger-Cohen Act in part to strengthen public reporting of projects in trouble. Senators believed the mandatory reporting of difficulties to Congress would be a deterrent to failure. But the UK govern- ment has failed to enact these parts of the Clinger-Cohen Act.
If projects in the UK continue unnecessarily despite mounting problems, or they waste large sums of public money, the worst that can happen is that the latest head of department, an entourage of civil servants in tow, appears before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee a year or more after the event and, in some cases, promises that the lessons have been learned. Few people will regard this as a fearsome deterrent to getting it wrong.
A senior Whitehall official said that government projects need external scrutiny, including media and parliamentary oversight, to compensate for the lack of accountability built into the system.
"If you have a bad experience of a commercial service, you can take your business elsewhere," said the official. "That is the incentive for the private sector to get it right. It is not so easy to take your business away from the taxman or Customs."
Officials say the Office of Government Commerce will monitor projects in the new IT strategy to ensure they are kept on the right track. But the OGC is not accountable to parliament for any poor advice on projects because its reports to departments are not published.
Transparency and accountability aside, the new IT strategy promises to make a difference, and it makes a compelling case for change. But so far some of the main support for the strategy has come from suppliers. Oracle, for example, sees the strategy as a plan to invest more money into shared services.
"Oracle welcomes the government's move to plough more investment into sharing services - both front and back office," said the company in a statement on the IT strategy.
"Local government, central government and the NHS are already starting to reap the benefits of shared services. On a regional level, partnerships, such as Staffordshire Connects, have seen 10 local authorities join forces to share services, and ultimately provide a consistent, high-quality service - irrespective of location - to all of its citizens. The partnership has also saved £1.5m in the process."
Sean Shine, the managing director of Accenture's UK and Ireland government practice, said, "We look forward to working with the government where we can to help deliver this strategy and make it a reality."
The strategy aims to benefit more than suppliers, and there is likely to be evidence of success stories in the annual report of the CIO Council. But will it tell the whole story? As with many government IT projects, the whole truth may never be known.
Key recommendations in the government IT strategy
- Government must engage with citizens and business to understand and then specify the transformational changes that service providers need to meet.
- In order to learn from the front line, government must engage with public servants who use systems every day, to help design and refine transformed services enabled by technology.
- To lead the transformation and design of services, and to own the overall service offering to those customers, government must appoint "customer directors" for customers in each of the high-level customer groups (citizen and business), reporting to the minister responsible for that customer group, co-ordinated by the centre.
- HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office should lead work to establish overarching standard frameworks for shared services and information. Each government organisation should set out "sharing policies" for services and assets that it needs or can provide to others.
- There should be a clear strategy for sharing in each major function: customer service centres, human resources, finance, IT infrastructure and services, information assurance, identity management, and standards and architecture, overseen by the Corporate Services Transformation Board, supported by the Service Transformation Team in the Cabinet Office.
- The CIO Council should create a unified approach to common infrastructure through a user-led Common Infrastructure Board; a common infrastructure director, and a specified set of delivery capabilities, financed entirely through user investment.
- To develop a strategic direction across the public sector for data sharing, a ministerial group, sponsored by Cabinet Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs should be established.
- To explain data protection and sharing and the interpretation of relevant legislation, the Department for Constitutional Affairs should develop a communications strategy for both practitioners and the public.
- Government should devise an holistic approach towards identity management converging towards biometric ID cards and passports, electronic gateways and a rationalisation of citizen and business record numbers, including an interim step towards ID cards using the national insurance number more widely.
- The CIO Council should encourage the use of standardised contracts, services and service boundaries.
- The government CIO should lead work to establish and support the IT profession in government, building capacity, culture and identity, within the context of the Professional Skills for Government programme.
- Annual expenditure and achievement against plans should be reported on by the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. This annual report should be audited by the National Audit Office and published to parliament.
- The CIO Council, working with the Office of Government Commerce, should monitor supplier intelligence, making periodic assessments of performance, taking action to ensure capacity and competition in the market, including the use of models to allow third-party suppliers to provide services and products.