Whitehall to relent on secrecy over mega projects – after 10-year campaign?

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office may be about to change its decade-old policy of not publishing reports on  the progress or otherwise of its large, costly and risky IT-based projects.

A change of policy from secrecy to openness would give MPs and the public warning of when a major project is in trouble and needs rescuing or cancelling.

Parliament last to know

For more than a decade campaigners have sought to persuade successive governments to publish “Gateway” reviews, which are short independent audits on the state of big projects.  The secrecy has meant that Parliament is usually the last to know when new national schemes go wrong. IT-related failures have hit many public services including those related to tax, benefits, immigration, passports, the fire service, prisons, schools examinations, student loans, the police and health services.

Now Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, has hinted to campaigning Conservative MP Richard Bacon that the Cabinet Office may change its policy and publish the “red, amber, green” status of large projects as they are routinely assessed.

Kerslake was replying to Bacon at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee meeting on transparency. Bacon pointed out at the hearing that the Public Accounts Committee had, years ago, called for Gateway reviews to be published.

Not learning from mistakes

“Something I have always been puzzled by is why government does not learn from its mistakes particularly but not only in the area of IT where things go wrong again and again, again and again,” said Bacon. “I have come to the conclusion government does not learn from its mistakes because it does not have a learning curve. If you don’t have a learning curve you are not going to learn.”

He cited the example of how Ian Watmore, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, had, at Bacon’s request, arranged for an “Opening Gate” report on Universal Credit to be published in the House of Commons library.

But, said Bacon, when an IT journalist applied to the Department for Work and Pensions, under the FOI Act, for the release of all Gateway reports on Universal Credit, the DWP would not publish any of them  – and even refused an FOI request to release the report Watmore had arranged to be placed in the House of Commons library, which Bacon obtained.  “So there is still a culture of intuitive, instinctive secrecy,”  Bacon said. Kerslake replied:

“Yes, actually we are looking at this specific issue as part of the Civil Service Reform Plan….I cannot say exactly what will be in the plan because we have not finalised it yet, but it is due in June and my expectation is that I am very sympathetic to publication of the RAG [red, amber, green] ratings.”

Bacon pointed out that the Cabinet Office Structural Reform Plan Monthly Implementation Updates had said Gateway reviews would be published.  But the commitment was removed for no apparent reason. When the Cabinet Office was asked why,  it said the Structural Reform Plans were only ever “drafts”.

Bacon asked Kerslake if the Government now plans to publish the Gateway reports.  “The Cabinet Office Structural Reform Plan Monthly Implementation Updates originally said Gateway reviews would be published  and then it somehow got downgraded into a draft; and from what’s publicly available at the moment the position of the government is not to publish Gateway reviews.  You sound as if you’re saying that’s going to change. Is that right?” asked Bacon.

“Watch this space,” replied Kerslake. “I am sympathetic. I generally broadly welcome, in principle, the idea of publishing information but there are lots of risks …”

Peter Gershon introduced Gateway reviews when he was Chief Executive of the Office of Government Commerce, which is now part of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group. The reviews are carried out at key decision times in a project and are sometimes repeated:

  • Gateway Review 0 – Strategic assessment
  • Gateway Review 1 – Business justification
  • Gateway Review 2 – Procurement strategy
  • Gateway Review 3 – Investment decision
  • Gateway Review 4 – Readiness for service
  • Gateway Review 5 – Benefits realisation

Are Gateway reviews a success?

Gateway reviews are now supplemented by regular assurance audits carried out for the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. None of the reports is published.

Gateway reviews have not stopped costly failures such as Firecontrol or the NPfIT.  One permanent secretary told an MP that the reviews in his department were considered unimportant by senior responsible owners, for whom the reports are written. This may be because SROs often have charge of many projects; and even their SRO responsibilities are often in addition to their main jobs.

But Gershon had high hopes of Gateway reviews when they were introduced in February 2001. This is evident from the number of times he referred to Gateway reviews at one hearing of the Public Accounts Committee in December 2001.

 “… as the Gateway review process cuts in, which I have referred to on a number of occasions when I have appeared at this Committee …”

“… Through things like the Gateway process we are helping to sharpen the focus on the whole life aspects of these and other forms of complex projects in public sector procurement…”

“ …First, we have the introduction of the Gateway review process…”

“ … The Gateway process is a demonstrable example of how we have introduced a technique to support that whole life approach…”

“… If you look at the guidelines around the Gateway review process that is one of the things that is tested by these independent reviews …”

“… we recognised that that was a problem some time ago, which is why in the Gateway review one of the things that is explicitly tested is things like the skills and capabilities of the team at the design and build stage and that the skills and capabilities of the team at the procurement stage …”

“… in this area with the Gateway review process, from when we first launched it last February, we have been helping the department take a whole life approach to these forms of complex projects …”

“… Part of the Gateway Review process is to get a much sharper insight on to where we see good things happening where we can encourage other clients to replicate them…”

“… Now, with the Gateway Review process, my experience has been because of where we have deliberately focused the attention on the early life of projects where there is the greater scope for management to take corrective action, the accounting officers are paying a lot of attention to the recommendations that are emerging because, much to my surprise, most of them do not seem to like coming here defending what has gone wrong in the past. They seem to welcome the recommendations that we are providing to them to help try to get projects on to much stronger foundations in the future…”

“… With the Gateway Review, my experience has been that the Accounting Officers respond to the recommendations very positively…”

“…Gateway Reviews explicitly test how the department is planning in the pre-contract phase to secure ongoing value for money in the post-contract phase…”

“… Take, firstly, the Gateway Review process. That is testing various points in the life cycle of the project, from the very earliest stage…”

“… I would certainly expect in Gateway Reviews that the review team would be testing what methods were in place to facilitate the ongoing management of the contract…”

“… I think it is encouraging that Sir Ian Byatt thought the Gateway Review process had sufficient value to recommend it in his own review…”

And so forth.

Comment:

We applaud Richard Bacon MP for his persistent call for Gateway reports to be published.

Gateway reviews have defeated expectations that they would stop failures; and the National Audit Office tells us that central departments don’t even request Gateway reviews on some big and risky projects although they are supposed to be mandatory.

But Gateway and other project assurance reports could prove invaluable if they are published. In the public domain the reports would enable Parliament and Francis Maude’s “armchair auditors” to hold officials and SROs to account for projects that are in danger of failing. That would be an incentive for officialdom to fail early and fail cheaply; and Gateway reviewers may take greater care to be neutral in their findings – not too lenient, or too harsh – on the basis that the reports would be open to public scrutiny. SROs would also have to take the review reports seriously – not just put them in a draw because nobody knows about them anyway.

We welcome Kerslake’s comments but hope that he and his colleagues plan to publish more than the RAG (Red/Amber/Green) status of projects. Otherwise they will be missing an opportunity.  Gateway reports and other assurance reviews are expensive. Reviewers can earn up to £1,000 a day. This money  could be well spent if the reviews are to be published; but it will add to public waste if the reports are kept secret and continue to be deemed pointless or unimportant by departments.

It is ironic, incidentally, that the Ministry of Justice, which introduced the FOI Act, gives advice to departments to keep the RAG status of Gateway reviews confidential. In its advice on Gateway reviews and the FOI, the MoJ tells departments that the “working assumption” is that the substance of the Gateway reports should be kept confidential until at least two years have elapsed.

It’s time for a culture change. Maybe the Civil Service Reform Plan next month will be worth reading.

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One response to “Whitehall to relent on secrecy over mega projects – after 10-year campaign?

  1. Pingback: Cabinet Office promises unprecedented openness on risky projects | Campaign4Change

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