Red tape frustrates U.K. government's eavesdroppers

Published 20 July 2009

A new report says that bureaucracy and red tape hampers the ability of the U.K. government to cope with an increased demand for intelligence and security testing

Chiefs at GCHQ, the U.K. government’s electronic eavesdropping station in Cheltenham, have been told to cut bureaucracy, which it is feared may hamper the agency’s ability to cope with an increased demand for intelligence and security testing. “The department has developed a proliferation of strategies, which serves to dilute its priorities and confuse its staff and partners,” a Cabinet Office report said today.

Chris Williams writes that GCHQ’s more than 5,000 civilian staff are are responsible both for electronic spying — SIGINT — and for providing IT security expertise, or information assurance, across other branches of U.K. government.

The report continued: “There is a risk that this lack of strategic coherence will have an impact on the organization’s focus and its ability to prioritize effectively in the face of stretching demands in the future.”

The reports authors spoke to junior staff at GCHQ, who said there were too many middle managers slowing decision-making and contributing to overly complex internal procedures. The Cabinet Office told intelligence chiefs they must “weed out” the middle ranks.

The quality of information available to GCHQ’s board was also criticized as “variable,” particularly relating to its finance. The agency is currently running a major IT procurement project — Mastering the Internet — worth hundreds of millions and designed to increase its surveillance of the web and VoIP.

In its response to the report, GCHQ said it would “tackle robustly” staff concerns about bureaucracy and look at ways to get a better understanding of its finances. It also promised to improve the diversity of its staff, which the Cabinet Office said was “poor,” with the proportion of women lagging behind other departments.