Francis Maude talks open govt – and Whitehall does the opposite

By Tony Collins

“If people do not know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary in a discussion on open government in Yes Minister.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said all the right things at the Intellect World Class Public Services conference 2012.

He said that:

– smaller, innovative and efficient suppliers were finding themselves locked out of the supply of services to Government because of what was described by Parliament as a powerful “oligopoly” of large suppliers

– for the first time in Government “we are using agile, iterative processes, open source technology platforms and world-class in-house development teams alongside the best digital innovation the market can offer”

– “We must eliminate failure waste. At the moment, a large proportion of our service delivery costs are incurred through incomplete or failed digital transactions. And these transactions create cross-channel duplication, which burdens the user and costs Government a huge amount in repeated costs. For HMRC alone, they estimate that 35% of calls to its contact centres are avoidable, which would save £75m.”

– “Transparency is a defining passion for this Government …”

Comment:

How much influence does Maude really have? Can he persuade permanent secretaries to effect major change? The evidence so far is that departmental officials and Maude have different ideas on what reform means.

In “Yes Minister” civil servants were proud of a new hospital that was the best run and most hygienic in the country, with no medical staff, 500 administrators and no patients.

Maude may also recall that Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the acclaimed writers of Yes Minister, spoke of the Whitehall law of inverse relevance – “the less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it”.

Open government? 

Perhaps civil servants are letting Maude get on with talking the talk while they find every way to keep things much as they are. A good example: The Guardian reported yesterday that a key part of the Government’s transparency drive has stalled amid reports of ministry opposition.

The paper’s political editor Patrick Wintour reported that plans to publish regular ‘traffic-light’ progress reports on large, costly and risky IT projects “appear to have been shelved”.

When it comes to IT this could have been the coalition’s most important single reform. It would have given MPs and the public a way of knowing when mega projects such as Universal Credit are failing. Usually we don’t know about a failed IT-related project unless there is a leak to the media, or the National Audit Office finds out and decides, with its limited budget, to do a study.

Sir Bob Kerslake, who is head of the civil service,  had indicated to MP Richard Bacon that “Gateway” review reports on large and risky IT and construction projects may be published in the civil service reform plan which is expected to be released this month.

Gateway reports to go unpublished?

Now it seems that departmental civil servants  have persuaded the Sir Bob not to publish “Gateway” reports. So the secrecy over the progress or otherwise of government mega projects is set to continue.

Yes, civil servants will allow the Cabinet Office to have its way on the publication of data about, say, some government spending. But it’s becoming clear that the civil service will not allow any publication of its reports on the progress or otherwise of major projects. It has been that way since Gateway reviews were introduced in 2001.

Some senior officials – by no means all – say they want a confidential “safe space” to discuss the progress of projects. The reality is that they do not want outsiders – MPs, the media and NAO auditors – meddling in their failing schemes – schemes such as Firecontrol and e-filing at the Ministry of Justice.

Unlike Maude, senior civil servants have what Jay and Lynn call a “flexible approach to open government”. This means in practice that Whitehall will happily release data – but not project reports on which the civil servants themselves can be judged.

Activity is not achievement

Maude’s speeches will give the impression of activity. But activity is the civil service’s substitute for achievement. I quote Jay and Lynn again, in part because their depiction of Whitehall seems to have been taken as serious wisdom by those officials who think Sir Humphrey a character worth living up to.

It’s time Maude and his team got a grip on departments. Until they do, permanent secretaries and their senior officials will regard Maude as trying to get out of situations that don’t need getting out of.

Whitehall to relent on secrecy over mega projects?

The empty hospital – Yes Minister

Government’s transparency drive stalls.

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