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Tony Collins is an investigative and campaigning journalist and former Executive Editor at Computer Weekly. With his friend and colleague David Bicknell he wrote "Crash", which found common factors in the world's largest public and private sector IT-related failures. He wrote "Open Verdict", a book on the strange deaths of defence scientists. He writes, and gives talks, on the tensions and disputes between suppliers and users.

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Wikileaks: an excuse for Whitehall backlash against Gateway review openness?

The coalition promised to publish Gateway reviews by January 2011. It hasn't happened yet. Is Sir Humphrey telling ministers: leave the detail to us?

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Senior civil servants at a recent function were saying that disclosures by Wikileaks have given permanent secretaries and heads of agencies reasons to resist the coalition’s campaign to brush away the cobwebs of secrecy in government affairs. 

The civil servants said that one casualty of the paranoia could be the coalition's plans to publish gateway reviews in full and at the time they are completed. IT Gateway reviews are short reports on the progress or otherwise of large and risky projects and programmes.

Downing Street’s policy is that the coalition should be "the most open and transparent government in the world”. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who's in charge of the policy on transparency promised that Gateway reviews would be published by the end of December 2010.

That doesn't look like it's happening though.  

Indeed one department, the Department of Health, has already prepared for release post-2007 Gateway reviews on the National Programme for IT, NPfIT, by editing out - redacting - all useful information, leaving only a skeleton of detail on what individual projects are intended to achieve, and the background to their introduction. 

The most open and transparent government in the world?

Armchair auditors who read the post-2007 NPfIT Gateway reviews expecting to learn how well the UK's biggest IT investment was progressing will see that the DH has replaced all review recommendations and the "traffic light" status of projects with "redacted". That said, most of the pre-2007 Gateway reviews are published in more detail - though still without the names of the project's senior responsible owner. 

What has the Wikileaks furore to do with Gateway reviews? 

I cannot see what the Wikileaks furore has to do with the disclosure or non-publication of Gateway reviews. Neither can the senior civil servants I have spoken to. But there has never been a strong rationale for secrecy within government over the state of IT-related projects and programmes.

National databases such as the Summary Care Records unaffected 

The disclosures by Wikileaks have not affected the coalition's spirited support for a national database of health records, the NPfIT component that is the Summary Care Records continues, although there is an argument for saying that Wikileaks, or a derivative, could publish the confidential health data on NHS patients that is held on the SCR database.

The Guardian said last month the NPfIT NHS Spine - which holds the SCR records - is “essentially no different from Siprnet, the military intranet at the heart of these leaks”.

Said The Guardian:

"The implications of the WikiLeaks disclosures for vast government databases are considerable. The confidential medical records of more than 50 million UK citizens will soon be sitting on a centralised £12bn computer system which can be accessed by as many as 250,000 NHS staff from 30,000 terminals.

"The NHS Spine is, essentially, no different from Siprnet, the military intranet at the heart of these leaks. The vision of a 22-year-old private soldier reading - and allegedly copying - the innermost secrets of US diplomacy is hardly a reassuring one.”

Comment:

Doubtless heads of departments and agencies will react to Wikileaks in a way they see will benefit their institutions, which probably means there will be contradictions: secrecy may prevail on Gateway reviews while the costly and questionable SCR national database is expanded.

Isn't it time the Cabinet Office and Francis Maude got a grip on permanent secretaries and their senior officials? The public suppose that ministers are in charge of their civil servants. 

The arguments in favour of publishing Gateway reviews are more important than those against. The Information Commissioner has said as much in the cases that have before him. 

By over-ruling civil servants who'd publish little or no useful information from Gateway reviews Francis Maude would remind departments and agencies that the civil service comprises servants of the public, not masters of ministers. When faced with a policy he opposes Sir Humphrey's infamous riposte is: "Leave the detail to me minister". 

The publication of Gateway reviews has been left to Sir Humphrey. Which is why it isn't happening. 

Links:

Conflicting views within the Cabinet Office over IT-related reforms

Philip Green's report - structural change is needed.  

Have these Cabinet Office officials been muzzled?

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