Belfast Telegraph

Civil Service rapped as digital project cost doubles to £110m

Critical: Kieran Donnelly
Critical: Kieran Donnelly
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

A digital transformation project has doubled in cost, amid warnings that it may not have delivered value for money.

The projected bill for the NI Direct Strategic Partner Project has risen from £50m to £110m.

A new report criticises the "unacceptable" failure of the Department of Finance (DoF) to introduce strong controls to monitor and manage expenditure.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) said lessons must be learnt from the project.

DoF agreed a £50m contract with BT in October 2012 to provide IT solutions, skills and capabilities to support Northern Ireland departments and organisations in moving services online.

The BT contract funded a contact centre, developed 13 major applications, paid for two major consultancy contracts and had cross-cutting applications across various central government departments.

By June 2017 it emerged that expenditure through the project would exceed the estimated contract value.

Departmental officials expect that by October 2022, total expenditure incurred will amount to £110m - over twice the original contract value. Today's report also identified other weaknesses in DoF's management of the contract.

It notes that, until September 2018, the department was unable to provide details of total costs against individual projects delivered through the contract, six years after it was established.

Only four of the projects delivered through the contract reported that savings have been made, and these have yet to be verified.

The report acknowledges that progress has been made in the digital transformation of public services, with 20 million digital transactions being completed across various new services by March this year.

However, the report criticised the way in which individual projects delivered through the Strategic Partner Project were prioritised, with projects focused primarily on central government services rather than those most valued by the public, such as health.

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "It is unacceptable that the Department of Finance did not have strong controls to monitor and manage spend through the NI Direct Strategic Partner Project.

"Lessons must be learnt and departments must put strong financial management controls in place and retain sufficient expert resources throughout the duration of major contracts.

"Digital transformation has the potential to significantly reduce costs and improve experiences for citizens, and this report notes that some progress has been made.

"However, there is a long way to go before public services are fully citizen-focused and transformed. Achieving the full benefits of digital transformation must involve better collaboration and the development of truly transformational services that work across public sector organisations."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann, a former chair of Stormont's Public Accounts Committee, said major change is urgently needed on how public money is managed in the Civil Service.

"There is a depressing familiarity about this in terms of yet another government project running wildly over budget and leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab," he said.

"This comes at a time when the public is still awaiting the report of the RHI Inquiry which was a spectacular failure to manage public money, and this latest overspend will do nothing to restore public confidence in how public money is being managed and looked after."

DoF said lessons are being learned from the Audit Office report.

It insisted: "The department is working closely with NIAO in response to the report and has taken action to improve delivery and enhance future digital transformation programmes.

"The department's audit and risk assurance committee conducted an in-depth review in October 2018 to explore the financial and contractual position with the Strategic Partner Project.

"This review resulted in new arrangements being put in place to move existing services to new arrangements before the end of the current contract. This approach has been welcomed by the Audit Office."

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