By Tony Collins
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has given up on publishing regular “Gateway” reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT and construction projects.
Publication of the independent reviews has proved a step too far towards open government. Were Maude to insist on publishing Major Projects Authority “Gateway” review reports, it would alienate too many influential senior civil servants whose support Maude needs to implement the Civil Service Reform Plan of June 2012.
Gateway reviews are independent reports on medium and high-risk projects at important stages of their lifecycle. If current and topical the reviews are always kept secret. One copy is given to the project’s senior responsible owner and the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority keeps another. Other copies have limited distribution.
In opposition Maude said he would publish the reviews; and when in power Maude took the necessary steps: the Cabinet Office’s “Structural Reform Plan Monthly Implementation Updates” included an undertaking to publish Gateway reviews by December 2011 .
When some officials, particularly those who had worked at the Office of Government Commerce, objected strongly to publishing the reports (for reasons set out below), the undertaking to publish them vanished from further Structural Reform Plan Monthly Implementation Updates. When asked why, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the plan to publish Gateway reviews had only ever been a “draft” proposal.
The anti-publication officials have thwarted even Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the Home Civil Service, who replaced Sir Gus O’Donnell. When in May 2012 Conservative MP Richard Bacon asked Kerslake about publishing Gateway reviews, 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.”
Inexplicably there was a change of plan. The Civil Service Reform Plan in fact said nothing about Gateway reports. It made no mention of RAG ratings. What the Plan offered on openness over major projects was an undertaking that “Government will publish an annual report on major projects by July 2012, which will cover the first full year’s operation of the Major Projects Authority.” (This is a far cry from publishing regular independent Gateway assessments on major projects such as the IT for Universal Credit.)
Even that promise has yet to materialise: no annual report has been published. The Cabinet Office originally promised Parliament an annual report on the Major Projects Authority by December 2011. The Cabinet Office says that the annual MPA report has been delayed because the “team is now clear that it makes sense to include a full financial year’s worth of data and analysis in its first report”.
When eventually published the annual report will, says the Cabinet Office, “make for a far more informative and comprehensive piece, and will include analysis of data up to 31 March 2012. This will be the first time the UK government has reported on its major projects in such a coherent and transparent way.”
Even so it’s now clear that the Cabinet Office is discarding its plans to publish regular Gateway review reports. Maude wants cooperation with officials, not confrontation. He made this clear in the reform plan in which he said:
“Some may caricature this action plan as an attack on the Civil Service. It isn’t. It would be just as wrong to caricature the attitude of the Civil Service as one of unyielding resistance to change. Many of the most substantive ideas in this paper have come out of the work led by Permanent Secretaries themselves.”
But Maude is also frustrated at the quiet recalcitrance of some officials. To a Lords committee that was inquiring into the accountability of civil servants, he said
“The thing for me that is absolutely fundamental in civil servants is that they should feel wholly uninhibited in challenging, advising and pushing back and then when a decision is made they should be wholly clear about implementing it.
“For me the sin against the holy ghost is to not push back and then not do it – that is what really enrages ministers, certainly in talking to ministers in the last government and in the current government. It is by no mean universal, but it is far more widespread than is desirable.”
It’s likely that Maude will keep Gateway reports secret so long as he has the cooperation of officials on civil service reforms.
Why officials oppose publication
The reasons for opposing publication were set out in the OGC’s evidence to an Information Tribunal on the Information Commissioner’s ruling in 2006 that the OGC publish two Gateway reports on the ID Cards scheme.
Below are some of the OGC’s arguments (all of which the Tribunal rejected). The OGC went to the High Court to stop two early ID Cards Gateway reports being published, at which time OGC lawyers cited the 1689 Bill of Rights. The ID Cards gateway reports were eventually published (and the world didn’t end).
The OGC had argued that publishing Gateway reports would mean that:
– Interviewees in Gateway reviews gave their time voluntarily and may refuse to cooperate. (The Information Commissioner did not accept that officials would cease to perform their duties on the grounds the information may be disclosed.)
– Interviewees would be guarded in what they said; reviewers would be less inclined to cooperate; and disclosure would result in anodyne reports. These three arguments were given in evidence by Sir Peter Gershon, the first Chief Executive of the OGC.
– Civil servants would be reluctant to take on the role of senior responsible owner of a project.
– Critics of a project would have ammunition which could discourage other departments and agencies from participating in the scheme.
– Cabinet collective responsibility could be undermined if Ministers were interviewed for a review.
– Criticisms in the reviews could be “in the newspapers within a very short time”, and the media could misrepresent the review’s findings. (The Tribunal discovered that those involved in the reviews were generally more concerned with their programme than possible adverse publicity.)
– Reports would take longer to write.
– The public would not understand the complexities in the reports.
Why Gateway reports should be published
The Tribunal found that OGC fears about publishing were speculative and that disclosure would contribute to a public debate about the merits of ID Cards, and provide some insight into the decision-making which underlay the scheme. Disclosure would ensure that a complex and sensitive scheme was “properly scrutinised and implemented”, said the Tribunal.
Was OGC evidence to Tribunal fixed?
The Tribunal was also suspicious that the OGC had submitted several witness statements that used identical wording. The Tribunal said the witnesses should have expressed views in their own words.
It found that disclosure could make Gateway reviewers more candid because they would know that their recommendations and findings would be subject to public scrutiny; and criticisms in the reports, if made public, could strengthen the assurance process.
Importantly, the Tribunal said the disclosure would help people judge whether the Gateway process itself works.
Hundreds of Gateway reports are carried out by former civil servants who can earn more than £1,000 a day for doing a review (although note Peter Smith’s comment below). As the reports are to remain secret how will the reviewers be held properly accountable for their assessments? No wonder officials don’t want the reports published.