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I was not anticipating being called to speak in this debate, but no matter. I am relatively new to the Public Accounts Committee, although it was visited upon me once upon a time before. The notes from which I am reading say “arcane”, but, sometimes, I am not sure whether the PAC is arcane or archaic.
Nevertheless, since becoming a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have attended one briefing and one evidence session. Issues have cropped up in my capacity as an MLA, and I have referred those to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office. I have to say that when I was previously at the PAC, Mr Dowdall always came across as extremely competent, very approachable, knowledgeable in his brief, and knowledgeable in the method by which one should approach that brief with the backup of his staff.
During the period to which the motion relates, the Committee undertook a report on the financial governance arrangements of North/South bodies. In researching that report, the PAC conferred with the Committee of Public Accounts in the Oireachtas in Dublin. This working year, the two Committees will meet again to cross-reference their findings on North/South bodies and, perhaps, even go so far as to synchronise the launch of their respective reports on those matters. In common with other Members, we look forward with bated breath to that approach.
This year, the Committee produced two composite reports, its second and third, and the subjects dealt with are too many and varied for me to deal with today. For me to even recall them at such short notice would be quite a task. However, I note that that mechanism enabled the Committee to make important contributions to the development of the reinvestment and reform initiative. It is hoped that that will be of particular interest in this time of economic concern.
I note from previous reports that an issue which has been brought to my attention — the involvement of private consultancy firms, and their cost to the public exchequer — has come before the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee. Inevitably, given the more recent revelations, that will come back under the scrutiny of the Committee.
I have looked into the reports that Members will be most aware of; namely, those dealt with by evidence session. In particular, I will discuss the recommendations that the Committee made in its progress report on shared services, which is part of the Civil Service reform agenda to make public services more efficient. Turning to the shared services report, I will give a brief overview of the projects, and comment on the lessons that the Committee drew from its evidence sessions.
The report on shared services was a snapshot of the reform project and incorporated seven initiatives, including Workplace 2010, Account NI, HR Connect and Network NI. The Committee was aware that the reform programme represented a major commitment of resource; it was estimated to have a total value of £3 billion.
As all the reform projects were central to the future organisation and delivery of public services, it was the Committee’s view that projects should be subject to the Gateway Review process at the prescribed stages of their procurement, implementation or service operation. The Committee recommended the approval of DFP Supply before committing resources, which was also a key safeguard in providing assurance to the Assembly that decisions had been subject to independent scrutiny.
The Committee also found that the projects presented an enormous management challenge for the Department and that, although it had taken steps to build capacity and skills among staff through its new Centre for Applied Learning, 2006 research showed that the Northern Ireland Civil Service was ill-equipped to deliver such a varied range of projects. Apparently, the Committee was aghast that one individual was given a key role and responsibility for delivering four of the major shared-services projects.
Overall, it appears that the Department took on a challenging workload and ambitiously initiated the reform agenda only to find that the timetabling for the projects and the resource requirement allocated to them were unrealistic. The Committee was also concerned at delays in implementation and at the suspension of the Workplace 2010 project at the time.
In addition, the procurement of the Workplace 2010 project, which was subsequently terminated, indentified a key lesson that has wider applicability across the public sector. The procurement process was the subject of a legal challenge by an unsuccessful bidder. Although DFP was convinced that it could win the case, after advice from counsel, it settled the case at a cost to the taxpayer of £225,000. However, the full cost to the Department was £1·2 million.
In the Committee’s view, concluding a settlement in cases where Departments are convinced that they will resist legal challenge sends the completely wrong signal to other unsuccessful bidders about the Government’s determination to stand over their tender processes where there is a robust case to do so.
This was a very useful case study by the Committee. By the time of next year’s debate, it says in my speech that I will be a “fully fledged veteran” of the Committee.