Bonuses of almost £600,000 have been handed out by Stormont departments in the past year, it has emerged.
Cash payments of up to £1,000 were awarded to hundreds of civil servants despite growing pressure to slash budgets.
Four departments saw their bonus outlay rise on the previous year's total.
It has prompted fresh questions over the appropriateness of extra payments in the current financial climate.
Details of each department's bonus expenditure during the 2010/11 financial year were released to this newspaper following Freedom of Information requests.
The total outlay was £594,932 - down from £720,096 paid out in the previous 12 months.
These were spent on "special bonuses" - aimed at rewarding good work - and separate from performance-related bonuses made to senior civil servants, which were axed in 2009.
The biggest outlay was made to 804 staff at the Department for Social Development (£176,270) and the Department of Finance and Personnel, which handed over £148,585.
This was up from £115,580 paid out by DFP in 2009/10.
Three other departments - Culture, Arts and Leisure; Employment and Learning, and Enterprise, Trade and Investment - also made increased bonus payments last year.
Each of the 12 departments was asked to state their highest bonus payment and identify the individual who received it.
While most confirmed they had awarded the maximum permitted bonus of £1,000 to at least one staff member, their identity was withheld.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone questioned the need for bonuses in a time of austerity. "I would question why people are being paid bonuses for doing a job they are expected to do well anyway," he said.
Some of the special bonus payments for 2010/2011:
Office of First/Deputy First Minister: £13,200
Department of Agriculture: £42,525
Department of Education: £35,270
Department of Employment and Learning: £46,472
Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: £23,550
Department of Finance and Personnel: £148,585
Department for Social Development: £176,270