The government listens at last

Nobody in their right mind would think a Hansard report on the day's proceedings in Parliament was an exciting, page-turning...

Nobody in their right mind would think a Hansard report on the day's proceedings in Parliament was an exciting, page-turning read. Yet, towards the end of a Hansard report of the debates in the Commons on 29 June 2004 is the story of the most significant development in government IT since departments began computerising their services in the 1960s.

Computer Weekly has called for a statutory framework to improve transparency and accountability on major IT projects. This publication has also asked the government to publish Gateway reviews of projects.

Last week, during a debate in the Commons, the Treasury minister Ruth Kelly announced that she found the proposition of a statutory framework "interesting", said the government would consider it and that this "illustrates the fact that we are committed to learning from experience".

The positive manner of her assertion refutes the idea that legislation is unnecessary and unworkable. Indeed, it recognises that the causes of government IT disasters are systemic. And Computer Weekly's proposals for new legislation would not mean more red tape. They would affect the public sector only, placing no extra burdens on the private sector.

Kelly's speech is momentous because it recognises that transparency and accountability are the two things that will get major public sector IT projects on track. It recognises that issuing more guidelines on good project management is pointless. Legislating for accountability is a far bigger step than trying to cajole departmental heads into adhering to good practice.

Sir Humphrey, being hostile to any proposal which makes him more accountable to Parliament, will seek to cool Kelly's interest in a statutory framework. But the genie is out of the bottle: the government cannot, with credibility, back away now.

On the publication of Gateway reviews Kelly surrendered to the view in officialdom that these are best kept secret. But Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee promised to return to the issue of Gateway reviews being published.

This publication commends the responses from Kelly and Leigh, and the tenacity of MPs, particularly Richard Bacon, in supporting Computer Weekly's campaign to stop IT disasters. Their efforts look set to save millions of pounds.

For more than 20 years this publication has reported, with increasing exasperation, the same mistakes being repeated. Finally we began a campaign called "Shaking up government IT." And now, by way of a Parliamentary announcement last week, that is exactly what has happened.

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