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By Bill Goodwin
Publishing reviews of the government’s IT projects would provoke clashes between departments of state, the information tribunal was told.
Peter Gershon, the former civil servant responsible for introducing “gateway reviews” of government information-technology programmes, made the claim during testimony defending secrecy for such reports on the identity-cards project. Requests under the freedom of information act (FOIA) for gateway reviews have routinely been refused.
He was speaking during a four-day hearing before the information tribunal, which must decide whether the government should release gateway reviews into the business case for ID cards. The decision could force the disclosure of all reviews of government IT projects under FOIA.
Gershon, former chief executive of the office of government commerce (OGC), said that publishing the ID-cards reviews would set a precedent leading to open confrontation between government departments.
Confidentiality was essential to the success of gateway reviews, he argued, because publication of criticisms in reports would spark a backlash from the department under scrutiny.
“They will say, 'We will go public and make it clear that 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.”
He said that the government could either be open or have an effective scrutiny process – not both.
Gateway reviews offered government officials the opportunity to speak candidly and unguardedly, he said, and this trust would be seriously undermined if officials thought that their views could become public.
The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, who regulates FOIA in the UK, has already ruled that the reports should be disclosed. He argues that there should be no blanket exemption for gateway reviews under FOIA.
The OGC is appealing the commissioner’s dec-ision. As reported previously by the FOIA Centre, government lawyers attacked the commissioner for not living in the “real world” after ordering disclosure.
Tim Pitt Payne, counsel for the commissioner, suggested to the tribunal that civil servants were more likely to be worried about how their comments might affect their careers when managers read them rather than the risk of a report becoming public.
The tribunal heard that civil servants were already protected by anonymity in gateway reports, because any views included were not attributed to individuals.
A decision by the tribunal is awaited.
Another version of this article first appeared in Computer Weekly.
FOIA Centre commentary
This case is a stark demonstration of how the culture of government remains one of finding comfort in secrecy. It is one that senior civil servants find hard to transcend. Peter Gershon, a former senior civil servant, exemplifies this.
The government fears that its departments would argue openly about gateway reviews if they were published. We certainly hope so. Let us let in the light at long last.
However, long experience of reports into spending by government departments published by the national audit office suggest that the prediction is exaggerated.
In any event, the government must have noticed by now that its processes for scrutinising IT projects are failing. Huge amounts of tax-payers’ money is being wasted. Lessons are not being learnt properly.
Gershon claims that we cannot have both effective scrutiny and open government. He is wrong. We can only have effective scrutiny if we have open government.
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