Cabinet Office promises unprecedented openness on risky projects

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office has defended its decision not to publish “Gateway” review reports on the progress or otherwise of large and risky IT and construction projects.

Gateway reviews are regular, short and independent audits on the state of medium and high-risk projects. Their publication would allow  MPs and the public to have an early warning of a major project in trouble – rather than know of a project failure only after it has happened.

Campaigners have sought for a decade to have the review reports published; and the  Information Commissioner, in requiring the publishing of ID Card gateway reviews under FOI,  dismissed the generalised arguments put forward by officials for Gateway reviews to remain confidential.

The Conservatives, when in opposition, promised to publish Gateway review reports if they came to power. But departmental heads and senior officials have stopped this happening.

Now the Cabinet Office, in a statement to The Guardian, has suggested that the first annual report of the Major Projects Authority will more than compensate for the non-publication of Gateway review reports.

The statement says that the Authority’s ( delayed)  first annual report will “bring unprecedented scrutiny and transparency to our most expensive and highest risk programmes, changing forever the culture of secrecy that has allowed failure to be swept under the carpet”.

The statement continues:

“Historically, fewer than a third of government major projects have delivered to original estimates of time, cost and quality. Since April 2011 the Major Projects Authority has enforced a tough new assurance regime and begun raising leadership standards within the Civil Service.”

The Guardian asked the Cabinet Office whether the traffic light red/amber/green status of Gateway reviews will be published.  The spokesman replied:

“The annual report will contain details of the status of major projects.“

Comment:

We applaud the Major Projects Authority in scrutinising, and in rare cases helping to stop,  departmental projects that don’t have adequate business cases. The Authority’s work is vital in pre-empting ridiculous schemes such as the NPfIT.

But project  disasters that rely on  IT continue, at the Ministry of Justice for example.  Like the National Audit Office, the  Major Projects Authority has limited resources and cannot scrutinise everything. Even if it could, the system of government is not set up in such a way as to allow the Authority to have final say over whether a project is stopped, curbed or re-negotiated.

Preventing failure

Gateway review reports are a critical component in preventing IT-related project failures. If officials know the whistle is going to be authoritatively blown on their failing schemes they are likely to do all they can to avoid failure in the first place. If they know that nobody will be aware of doomed schemes until those involved have left or moved, they will have less incentive to make projects a success.

An annual report is no substitute for the contemporaneous publishing of Gateway review reports. Each Gateway review is several pages and puts into context the traffic light red/amber/green status of the project. An annual report will not contain every Gateway review report. If just the traffic light status is published that will be a start, but without the context of the report what will it mean?

[And it’s worth bearing in mind that the first annual report of the Major Projects Authority is already six months late.]

The non-publication of Gateway review reports is  a victory by senior officials over ministerial promises.  How can we believe that the coalition is committed to unprecedented openness when the final say remains with Sir Humphrey?

Cabinet Office promises to challenge culture of secrecy on IT projects.

Whitehall to relent on secrecy over mega projects?

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2 responses to “Cabinet Office promises unprecedented openness on risky projects

  1. I was told in an FOI response that Cabinet Office wouldn’t give me some info on the savings Francis Maude had quoted because “the data will be released shortly to everyone” or words to that effect. Almost 3 months have gone by since then… no sign of it. As you say, delaying publication loses something from the process.

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    • Francis Maude’s heart is in the right place and there are some good people in the Cabinet Office. But I suspect its FOI office is run by software: it finds key words in the FOI request and gives a rejection explanation that seems most relevant. Your rejection explanation is so good it could almost have come from a human. That said I have had similar ones. Tony

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