One of the key recent shifts in government policy has been a move towards openness. But this is not from some deeply-held belief that "it's good to share"; it is simply a recognition of the fact that the public has a right to know how its money is being spent. It also flows from the fact that when people are aware that their decisions will be scrutinised, and that they may have to justify their assumptions and logic, they tend to think a little harder and more deeply about what action to take.
Here's what Francis Maude, Minister for Cabinet Office, said on the subject at the end of last year:
I want the public hold us to account for what we do and, by publishing this data today, taxpayers will be able to see exactly how we spend their money. This will not always be easy but we expect the public to hold our feet to the fire and make sure that not a penny of their money is wasted.
Against that background, the following is regrettable:
Computacenter has prevented Bristol City Council from publishing details of a consulting project that has been overshadowed by allegations of anti-open source bias.
Bristol refused to release advice received from Computacenter concerning the choice of infrastructure to support the council's 7,000 PCs and the allocation of more than £8m of public money.
I've no idea whether there has been any anti-open source bias – how can I, when I don't have access to any of the facts? But this issue is larger than questions of support or lack of it for free software. This is simply about the public's right to know how its money – the not inconsiderable sum of £8 million in this case – is being spent.
Now, Computacenter may well be within its rights in refusing to allow people to see details of its consulting project – I'm sure it has lots of well-paid lawyers to advise it. But of course, as the previous government delighted in reminding us, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, so why not release the full document anyway? If the company is sure that its starting assumptions are absolutely even-handed, and its business logic is rigorous, it has nothing to lose by this in-depth demonstration of its wide-ranging professionalism – indeed, it would act as an excellent advertisement for the quality of its services.
Because this isn't about the letter of the law, this is about the spirit. And the new spirit, as underlined by Maude, is transparency and openness. If Computacenter's management don't agree with that, that's fine. But it seems to me that if that is the case, the company should not be considered for central or local government projects in the future, since it is clearly so out of step with the new mood of the times.