23 June 2009

Big Victory for FoI and UK Transparency

Kudos to Computer Weekly:

The information commissioner has ordered the opening of confidential files on a wide range of high-risk IT projects, including the ID cards scheme, joined up police intelligence systems and the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

It is the most far-reaching decision under the Freedom of Information Act for government IT.

It is also a victory for Computer Weekly’s campaign for the release of the results of Gateway reviews on the progress of major IT-based projects.

MPs have complained that the first they knew of problems on projects such as the IT to support tax credit and child support payments was when constituents contacted them.

Our campaign has been aimed at persuading government to release information about projects in time for MPs and others to ask informed questions, and possibly avert a failure.

I particularly liked the list of feeble excuses used for not giving out the information, especially the last one, which is extraordinary in its arrogance:

# It would prevent policy formulation or development taking place in the self-contained space needed to ensure it was done well.

# It would make policy development less effective because departments’ attention would be focused on obtaining a “green light”.

# It would cause reports to become bland and anodyne, defeating their purpose.

# It would make interviewees, senior responsible owners and the private sector less willing to participate in reviews or co-operate with interviewers.

# It would cause delays in the completion of reports as words and phrases would be argued over.

# It is unnecessary. The public interest is already met by the information about the programme in the public domain combined with parliamentary scrutiny.

and the list of responses from the Information Commissioner:

* It would allow the public a better understanding of the development of the programmes which are the subject of Gateway reviews.
* It would allow project risks and concerns to be identified.

* It would not damage the Gateway process in the way the OGC has suggested.

* The public scrutiny of projects by the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee involve largely historical and retrospective analyses. Gateway reviews “would provide a level of public scrutiny of current projects”.

* It would inform the debate as to the merits of the schemes, the practicalities involved and the feasibility.

* It would ensure that “schemes as complex as these are properly scrutinised and implemented”.

* It is unrealistic to imagine that civil servants will not participate if reviews are to be published. In accordance with the Civil Service Code, “civil servants must fulfil their duties and obligations responsibly.”

Those are crucially important points, because they apply to everything else, past, present and future.

Well done, Computer Weekly for waging and winning this battle: now let's all take it forward to make UK government even more transparent.

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