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Auditor criticises NI Direct programme


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Northern Ireland’s government auditor has passed a critical verdict on the NI Direct Strategic Partner programme, saying it is not possible to conclude whether it has delivered value for money.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) has published a report on the programme that highlights the expenditure on the contract between the Department of Finance (DoF) and BT, going back to 2012, is now expected to hit £110 million against an original estimate of £50 million.

It has also identified weaknesses in the DoF’s management of the contract.

The programme was launched to support the migration of citizen services online, with the setting up of the indirect contact centre and the creation of several services including applications for a driving licence, a Blue Badge, rate rebates, planning and water appeals, registering as a landlord and researching family history.

The NIAO says that, until September 2018, the DoF was unable to provide details of total costs against individual projects delivered through the contract, and that there had been no identification of baseline savings figures.

Savings shortcomings

Departmental accounting officers have been responsible for the relevant business case approvals and benefits realisation of their projects, but only four of the projects reported that savings had been made and these have not yet been verified.

While the report acknowledges that there has been progress in the digitisation of services, with more than 20 million digital transactions completed by March of this year, there have been failings in how their delivery has been prioritised. Projects have been focused primarily on central government rather than services most valued by the public, such as in healthcare.

The rationale for this has been unclear, and the absence of collaborative working across government departments and public sector bodies has hindered the implementation of transformation projects.

The NIAO makes 10 recommendations, including that all departments should ensure strong financial management controls are in place for the monitoring of expenditure, and that a central record of key financial data is maintained by the contract owner.

Register and guide

It also urges the DoF to consider how digital transformation can be advanced across the public sector, that it should create a central register of lessons learned, and develop a short guide to support officials working on digital transformation projects.

Other recommendations include:

  • a review of transformation activities across Northern Ireland;

  • that the DoF mandates the re-use of code, components, tools, applications and data;

  • it should speed up work on the Mydirect portal to provide a ‘tell me once’ service;

  • it should form a partnership with a progressive government leading in digital transformation;

  • departments should ensure all projects include clear and robust baselines for resourcing and the realisation of savings.

Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly (pictured) 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.”

Northern Ireland’s DfI responded with a statement that it has learned lessons from the programme and taken action to improve delivery and enhance future digital transformation programmes. 

Review and changes

Its Audit and Risk Assurance Committee conducted a review of the programme last year and is moving existing services to new arrangements before the end of the current contract.

It has also added new mechanisms to improve the monitoring of expenditure and now has a dedicated and skilled contract management resource in place. 

“This was the first wide ranging digital transformation project across NI Civil Service departments and, as it gained momentum, the number of public facing online services delivered through the contract doubled, leading to increased expenditure,” the DfI said.

Image from NIAO

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