Progressing into the public domain

22 September 2004
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23 September 2004

The government is under pressure to open up the results of progress reports on major projects. David Arminas asks what the impact of publication would be

A major lobby group is to raise the pressure on the UK government to publish Gateway reviews, allowing greater public scrutiny of progress on construction and IT projects.

The European Information Society Group (Eurim) will make its case and recommendations in a report that it intends to circulate among policymakers. This includes the Cabinet Office, heads of departments and the main procurement advisory body, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) - originator of Gateway reviews.

"It will be a scattergun approach," says Eurim chairman and Labour MP Brian White. "But we feel we are pushing on an open door with policymakers. The question is how you can change the culture of the departments themselves to allow for more open access."

He says more transparency is needed with government contracts because it is public money and the public has a right to know how well work on its behalf is done (see page 7). On the question of whether reviews should be published, White believes it will be hardest to convince senior civil servants and change their departmental cultures towards openness. Eurim's membership is formidable, with MPs, peers, corporate members including Fujitsu Services and IBM, and institutions such as CIPS. The government can't afford to ignore Eurim's representations for more openness and accountability.

Eurim's call comes when all of Britain's governments, including the devolved regimes in Scotland and Wales, are most vulnerable to arguments promoting greater efficiencies. Chancellor Gordon Brown's spending review in July called on government purchasers to save £6 billion over the next four years.

The six stages of a Gateway review are important in this savings battle. They pinpoint problems in major IT and construction contracts before they become insurmountable and the project encounters cost overruns or ends up hidebound through legal wrangles. The fiasco of the Scottish parliament, which cost 10 times the original estimate, is an example of what Gateways are supposed to avoid.

The other main question is what should be published from the review process and how. All is yet to be played for in this area.

Both supporters and opponents of publication recognise that the success of reviews has been based on their candid nature behind closed doors. People are more free to say what they think and more likely to take responsibility. But knowing that their thoughts and views will be made public may stifle this openness and destroy the reviews' usefulness.

John Oughton, chief executive of the OGC, is aware of this. He also says that it has no power to publish reviews - this is up to project owners. But Oughton could be caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue of openness versus usefulness.

A National Audit Office report in March claimed that the OGC beat its three-year £1 billion cost savings target to 2003 to reach £1.6 billion. Savings from Gateways were not included but they will be in the next three-year round, which demands £3 billion in value-for-money gains by 2006. Half of this is to come from Gateways, which will be mandatory.

The government and the OGC were criticised for how they claimed savings during the first three-year period, so opening Gateways to more public scrutiny could legitimise the savings that departments and the OGC will claim from them. Not publishing them could throw into question how savings were calculated.

A more open Gateway review process including publishing information is to be welcomed, says Sue Morecroft, purchasing and supply management development manger at CIPS. "We would have to be careful that the need to publish information in any form does not delay the project. Strategies to publish information should be well laid out so everybody knows what will and won't be available."

The government is also wrestling with an upcoming Freedom of Information Act that requires greater access to public information. It remains to be seen how far Gateways will be included in this legislation.

If reviews are to be more open, the government must decide how much information will be public, how long after the review took place information will be available, whether people will be mentioned by name and what information will be exempt from public scrutiny because it is "commercially sensitive".

Rather than wilt under public gaze, purchasers will have to be doubly vigilant that the process gives maximum value for money.


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