Michael Gove tells BBC he doesn't think much of the Dfe's ICT – or the Freedom of Information Act
"Sometimes bad ideas generate good thinking." That, and poor technology supplied by the Department for Education – "The computer and the, erm what’s it called, Blackberry" – was why education secretary Michael Gove MP and some of his advisers sidestepped DfE ICT and used their own computers and personal email for their work.
This is what he claimed in a BBC World at One interview with Martha Kearney last week (transcript below), and also that he has a problem with the Information Commissioner’s ruling to reveal these private emails.
Michael Gove is evidently hoping that Freedom of Information guidelines can be re-interpreted to create a new space for politicians, their advisers and civil servants to collaborate on policy, A place where their purposes, motivations and activities can be concealed from public gaze, He hopes that a tribunal will redefine these guidelines. This would, of course, undermine the Freedom of Information Act and get him off the hook from what appear to be serious allegations.
Admits handling of BSF was 'clumsy' and 'insensitive'
Michael Gove’s admissions are accompanied by elegantly expressed smokescreens. Yes, he told, Martha Kearney, his cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme had been “clumsy” and “insensitive” and had left schools with “uncertainty”. However, under the Labour Government they had been “led to believe that their schools desperately needed rebuilding and suddenly they were left high and dry” – hence the disappointment. Rather like saying that BSF was slashed because it “wasn’t efficient” when in fact it had been targeted by Tory politicians years before they came to power.
What lies behind Michael Gove’s BBC comments are serious allegations, already raised in the Financial Times newspaper by journalist Chris Cook (“Gove staff destroyed government emails”). Michael Gove’s staff, it is alleged, “systematically destroyed official government correspondence”.
Coincidentally, the Leveson Inquiry has revealed that Adam Smith, adviser to secretary of state for culture, media and sport Jeremy Hunt MP, also used Gmail accounts to communicate with his boss about News International.. The practice appears to be common across government departments, although Adam Smith denied a suggestion that it amounted to “clandestine back-channel communications”. (Michael Gove appears before the Leveson Inquiry on tuesday May 29.)
It remains to be seen whether a response to Michael Gove’s claims emerges from the civil servants responsible for the government technology he uses, but they are understood to be furious about being made the scapegoat for a politician and his advisers using personal technology for public purposes. What is clear is that a government minister who took 18 months to say anything significant about the use of technology for learning was far more familiar with ICT than any of his detractors thought.
Partial transcript of BBC World at One interview with Michael Gove MP (May 24)
Speakers: Michael Gove and Martha Kearney
MK: There had been report that he [Gove] is at odds with his officials. The Minister has been accused of using private emails to evade the departmental system and the Information Commissioner has ruled that they should be made public. So does he agree with David Cameron’s critique of the civil service that you have to shake things very hard to get things done quickly?
MG: No. I think all ministers tend to be impatient at different times. People don’t go into politics because they are looking for a languid lifestyle. What is true of the Prime Minister, his impatience and his energy for reform across a huge number of areas, is true of me in the area of education. I am driven by the fact that children only have one chance and that we need to make sure that we are making a difference as quickly as possible to as many as possible. But I’ve been helped enormously by an amazing team at the Department for Education....
MK: You see there is a suspicion that you want to bypass your team of officials particularly because you were caught using personal emails?
MG: Yes, and I do use personal emails.
MK: Mrs Blurt I think was the name you used?
MG: [Laughs] Yes, it’s a family joke actually, it is our home email we’ve changed it now. But I sent personal emails simply because the one thing that did frustrate me at the Department for Education was its IT and its software which I could never get the hang of. So I just used my own laptop for ease and convenience and speed of communication primarily.
MK: What, the Department for Education’s email didn’t work?
MG: The computer and the, erm what’s it called, Blackberry that I had I just didn’t find congenial so I just cracked on with my own Apple. But, the critical point about the department is that even though its IT might be ropy its staff are fantastic.
MK: Just returning to the emails though, are you going to publish them because that is what the Information Commissioner has asked you to do under Freedom of Information?
MG: There is a tribunal coming up because we think that some of the arguments the Information Commissioner made need to be explored further. It’s… a sort of balance I think has to be struck because on the one hand I think it is really important that parents and taxpayers have much more information about how their money is spent and about how institutions like schools and indeed government and ministers are performing, but there needs to be a space where civil servants can talk frankly to ministers and advisers can talk frankly to ministers about policy and they can run through things.
Now sometimes things leak, that’s just part of life, but sometimes those leaks lead people to believe that we are going in one direction when in fact it was just an idea that was being tested. And the only way that you can get good policy is by having people encouraged to be radical, not being worried that they will be laughed out of court for it, and then when an idea comes forward in discussion you can kick it around and you know – sometimes bad ideas generate good thinking.