The Liberal Democrats have slammed the Treasury's record for transparency in government IT project spending, saying its opacity leads to a lack of public accountability.
Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor Vince Cable MP said on Tuesday: "Given the government's IT project record of massive cost overruns and delay, it is absolutely essential to have the maximum degree of transparency and public accountability. The appalling behaviour of government departments, destroying paper trails rather than submitting them to scrutiny, suggests there is an element of self-delusion in the belief that we now have a transparent system."
The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), a Treasury body, has issued guidance to its gateway reviewers to shred all documents related to final gateway reviews, leaving only two copies of each, reported ComputerWeekly. Gateway reviews give interim analyses of high-risk government IT projects such as the ID cards scheme and NPfIT, the NHS's National Programme for IT.
The OGC denied that this was an effort to hide costs, so avoiding public censure of IT schemes, or to deny Freedom of Information Act requests to view the final versions of gateway reviews. "The reference to 'shredding' in OGC's gateway guidance refers partly to 'version control', to ensure that there is no confusion created between notes made during work-in-progress and the final gateway review report, and partly because a gateway review is a confidential report for the senior responsible owner (SRO) of a project," said the OGC in a statement.
The OGC said it was up to the SRO to decide whether to make the report public or not, and how to act on gateway review recommendations. "The SRO, and not the review team, is best placed to decide how to share the report and action its recommendations. All project documentation is owned by the department responsible for the relevant project and is retained by that department."
However, a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report, published on Tuesday, found that SROs may not be in the best position to action gateway review recommendations. The PAC report found that senior civil servants are "inexperienced in running mission-critical and high-risk programmes and projects".
"Around half (53 percent) of senior responsible owners are in their first 'SRO' role and the time they spend on the role is limited," said the report. "Most spend only a minority of their time on their senior responsible owner duties — for nearly half (45 percent), the role accounts for less than a fifth of their time."
The Delivery and Transformation Group, the part of the Cabinet Office which effects government change, "acknowledges that departments' skills in managing large IT-enabled change are weak, and is seeking to re-build capacity," said the report.
The PAC found that SROs are currently not rewarded for staying the course to deliver their project, or for taking ownership of risks. "Lack of experience, combined with a regular turnover of senior responsible owners, creates discontinuity and adds unnecessary risk to the management of IT-enabled business change," said the report.
Moreover, while ministers have the power to halt major IT-enabled programmes that are likely to fail, and to discontinue those that no longer meet policy objectives, the report found that ministers are not always fully briefed. Just 52 percent of SROs have quarterly meetings with the nominated minister and 21 percent have had no meetings at all.
The PAC report recommended that all final gateway review reports be published.
The OGC declined to comment on the findings of the PAC, and would not comment as to whether the PAC report would encourage it to review its gateway review confidentiality stance.
Whitehall believes that publishing gateway review reports would undermine the efficacy of the reviews, as contributors would be unwilling to be completely open and honest if they knew their statements would go into the public domain.