The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has taken to treating its "Gateway" reviews of government IT projects like classified official documents as pressure mounts to have them opened to public scrutiny.
The OGC, HM Treasury's procurement sheriff, has ordered civil servants to "securely destroy" all copies of Gateway reviews of the politically sensitive and much criticised National Identity Scheme (NIS) and National Programme for IT (NPfIT), according to Computer Weekly.
Only two copies of the reports will be retained - one each for the senior responsible owner (the departmental project boss) and the OGC executive overseeing the review. People who are asked verbally to comment on the contents of a Gateway review are supposed to "say they are not 'actively published or disclosed'".
Unlike classified government documents, the publication of a Gateway review would not endanger national security or threaten anyone's lives. Yet it could cause the government embarrassment, particularly if the reviews, which are meant to keep regular tabs on an IT project's feasibility, showed a project was risky, ill-planned, or expensive.
What the Computer Weekly story has revealed is a culture of fear in which it is not enough merely to prohibit the publication of a report, but that its distribution must be tightly monitored in case any information leaks out.
Civil servants told Weekly they were concerned about the shredding order. The reports contained recommendations they had to follow in order to make sure an IT project was successful.
The whole idea was "odd and a little sinister", said one, while Weekly relayed concern that "a department or agency's internal audit committee, MPs, the department's IT team, computer suppliers, and potential end-users may be denied access to the final report".
The official reason why the OGC is going to such lengths to keep Gateway reviews secret is that their publication would discourage people working on IT projects from speaking honestly about them - if they reported their dissent it might be blown out of proportion by the media, the argument goes.
This was the argument the OGC has used in its ongoing appeal against a legal challenge to have its Gateway reviews of the controversial NIS published.
When the Information Tribunal threw out the OGC's last appeal last month, it reported that the OGC didn't really have any faith in its own arguments.
Weekly suggested the shredding order might heighten suspicion that a select few have always known that the ID and NPfIT projects were "fundamentally" flawed. If those suspicions were true, then the publication of the gateways might indeed attract some media interest. ®