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Stormont’s £144m bill for outside consultants

Around £144m was spent on external consultants by the Government in Northern Ireland in the five years to 2009/2010, an Audit Office report has revealed.

Expenditure peaked in 2006/07 at £42 million but has since fallen to £19.5 million, the review said.

Consultants were called in for jobs departments or other public bodies did not have the expertise for, such as designing assessments for use during staff promotion processes.

The report did note significant improvement in use of competitive tendering but highlighted some cases where contracts were not the subject of bids.

It said: "Skills transfer is essential in addressing departments' future reliance on external consultants and securing better value for money.

"We recommend that business cases should always give explicit consideration to the transfer of skills."

Over the period 2005/06 to 2009/10, Northern Ireland departments including agencies, non-departmental public bodies and health trusts spent £144 million on external consultancy. Expenditure peaked in 2006/07 at £42 million but fell to £19.5 million in 2009/10.

The 55-page report by auditor general Kieran Donnelly - Use Of External Consultants By Northern Ireland Departments: Follow-Up Report - made nine recommendations.

Key points from the report included:

  • Departments must do more to ensure that business cases are being undertaken as required by the guidance and that they are of appropriate quality
  • Around one in five cases was not competitively tendered. That should be the exception and where undertaken the rationale for it must be clearly documented and approved by the accounting officer;
  • More than half of contracts not procured through centres of expertise were not subjected to competitive tendering
  • Despite an improvement, 40% of cases sampled by the Audit Office cost more than planned. This was down to changes in legislation, poor initial planning and management or control of consultants
  • The Department of Finance and Personnel gave a commitment to the Public Accounts Committee that comprehensive and accurate data on all consultancy expenditure would be available at the touch of a button through the AccountNi system. This has not happened
  • Lessons learned through the use of external consultants should be disseminated throughout each department in a timely fashion

In June 2004 the Audit Office published a report on the use of external consultants and found that departments were failing to comply fully with DFP guidance and that there was considerable scope for improvement of procurement and management of external consultancy services.

Today's follow-up study examined the improvement since then.

The Audit Office added: "Departments have demonstrated a significant improvement in compliance with DFP guidance and good practice, In particular, there has been greater compliance in the preparation of business cases, adherence to competitive tendering arrangements and completion of post-project evaluations."

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