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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Jan 13th, 2008 - 10:20:22


The penny belatedly drops for Computer Illiterate Irish Ministers, Senior Bureaucrats and Advisers
By Michael Hennigan
Oct 23, 2005, 19:42

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Micheál Martin, T.D., currently Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment - He commissioned more than 30 external reports when Minister for Health. In common with most of his ministerial colleagues, he has no business experience. It's amazing, given the huge expenditures on infrastructure and IT, that no Minister has had the basic cop-on to propose the appoinment of 2 senior specialists with successful international experience, who would have responsibility for major public IT and Capital Projects
On Thursday last, Brian Cowen TD, Minister for Finance addressed the Dublin Chambers of Commerce Annual Dinner in a speech titled Achieving Value for Money in Public Expenditure.

Cowen was responding to a public outcry following the suspension of major IT projects at the Department of Health and years of pressure for control of runaway costs of major infrastructure projects, which were a one-way bet for developers but not the taxpayers.

Also last week, the High Court was told that Limerick developer Pat Mulcair is getting €2.8m a year in personal tax breaks, from "funding arrangements" put in place for the National Aquatic Centre (NAC).

Pat Mulcair is the owner of the Roadbridge construction company and Motorways Investments. His involvement with the NAC was not public knowledge until last month, when it was revealed in court that Dublin Waterworld, the company selected to run the controversial development, had transferred ownership to Mulcair on the same day it signed a lease with Campus & Stadium Ireland (CSID).

The deal only came to light after the CSID took the issue to court in order to remove Dublin Waterworld as operator of the €62 million centre that was paid from public funds.

Last year, the system of public payment of lawyers at public tribunals was changed following the publication of information that several had become multi-millionaires while working for the State.

It says a lot about Irish public governance, the competence of individual Ministers and the senior bureaucrats, that everyone in a position to make what would have been commonsense and basic business decisions, did not do so until several hundred millions of euros disappeared down an Information Technology sink-hole and billions were underestimated on roadbuilding projects.

In the Information Technology area, two of the Department of Health's IT projects were suspended earlier this month by the Health Service Executive as estimated costs rocketed towards €400 million. The PPARS (Payroll, Payment and Related Systems) was budgeted to cost €8.8 million in 1998. If fully implemented, the system may now cost up to €200 million. Another project FISP: Financial Information Systems Project was budgeted to cost €30 million. It is now estimated that it will cost at least €176 million.

Several other IT projects in the public sector were sanctioned with no credible controls and accountability. €3 million was spent on a web project that former Minister for Health Micheál Martin announced but the site literally disappeared in the ether. The project was abandoned.

As for infrastructure projects, several billions have been fritted away with nobody obliged to accept responsibility.  

The penny has at last dropped for the computer illiterate Government Ministers, senior bureaucrats and political advisers who have been paid well, to ask the questions that a business person would be expected to, when signing off on major expenditures.

Brain Cowen and Micheál Martin have served in recent years as Ministers for Health and the present incumbent Mary Harney has had responsibility for the Department since September 2004.

Their backgrounds - Cowen, a solicitor, Martin a school teacher and Harney, a public representative all her working life, would not make any of them obvious candidates to run a 100,000 plus organisation. Each of them have personal advisers but the advice does not obviously include commonsense.

Instead of putting party flunkeys on the public payroll, has there been anyone in Government with the savvy to propose a CIO - Chief Information Officer - with key experience in world class IT organisations and successful project implementation experience? A similar function with responsibility for major infrastructure projects would surely have also been merited.

In his speech last week, Cowen proposed that the public sector should hire IT and Capital Evaluation Project specialists, improve training and introduce fixed price lump sum contracts for capital projects. He also said that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, intends to introduce a number of important legislative changes which will assist the State in getting a better deal when acquiring land by way of compulsory purchase order in the forthcoming Strategic Infrastructure Bill. 

Cowen spoke of accountability, transparency and responsibility. He was mute on why Government Ministers and their advisers are so clueless, uninterested or disinterested, that it takes years to agree on what most others would view as commonsense issues. Then in response to political and media heat, an internal meeting can be held prior to a speech and voilà, the Minister, senior bureaucrats and advisers all see the light. 

The following is  an extract of Brian Cowen's speech Achieving Value for Money in Public Expenditure:

We need a more accountable, transparent and effectively functioning public sector. Public services must be ready to meet the requirements of an increasingly complex and, appropriately in my view, demanding society by delivering better value for money and increased quality of service in each and every area.

I am determined that solutions will be implemented. It is also important even if unpopular to recognise the commitment, innovation, competence and sometimes brilliance of many public servants and a drip feed of constant criticism could reduce the attractiveness of the public service which would be in no one’s interest.

However, in view of the need to improve value for money, and against the broad socio-economic success story that I have described, the Government have already decided to take specific action on IT projects and other initiatives. In addition I believe there is a need for a wide range of other actions and measures that I intend to form part of an integrated on-going programme to deliver value for money in both current and capital expenditures. I would now like to outline initiatives that I believe will be important in achieving this key objective for the public service in Ireland.

1. Full acceptance of the need to improve value for money and to ensure that every euro is well spent.

We are operating in a market-based economy and one that has become very successful over the last decade. However, there are some occasions in which markets and sectors may fail to work well for their users and this provides the rationale for Government intervention. These situations include infrastructural and network projects, where on its own the market may not deliver the outcomes that society needs. We also need to provide a wide range of public services.

It is important to recognise the principle of making sure that every euro is appropriately spent. This principle which is familiar to the businesses gathered here tonight, is equally if not even more important for Government and the public sector.

Value for money is also not simply an item to be ticked in project appraisal. Rather it is the outcome of a carefully considered appraisal system and culture that takes into account, as objectively as possible, the overall benefits and costs of a given project and seek to make sure that budget estimates are met.

Secondly:

2. Fixed price lump-sum contracts become the norm.

This development will be fundamental to protecting taxpayers from cost over-runs. The aim is to ensure that there is a fair risk sharing and that contractors take on those risks that they are able to manage and control. The optimum transfer of risk will ensure that taxpayers are protected from the financial consequences of unnecessary delays and in turn cost overruns. This should apply to service or consultancy contracts as well as infrastructure projects in health, education, justice, transport and other areas.

My colleague, the Minister for Transport, recently announced the introduction of fixed price lump sum contracts for all future transport infrastructure projects. This is the norm in the private sector. The Dundalk by-pass was built by the private sector and we should recognise was completed ahead of schedule and below its budget. The by-pass, which affords motorists a continuous stretch of dual carriage between Dublin and beyond Dundalk, is the first public private partnership in which more than €100m was raised. The Kilcock – Kinnegad by-pass is another example of a PPP projecting proceeding ahead of schedule. Outside of the roads area, the development of the National Maritime College in Cork is also a good example of a PPP project coming in on time and on budget.

The establishment of a Centre of Expertise in the National Development Finance Agency will provide the skills and capacity required to support the procurement of key infrastructure projects by PPP in the central Government area. This initiative, to accelerate delivery of PPPs for key infrastructure projects, will focus initially on progressing new projects suitable for PPP procurement in three key Departments – Education and Science, Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. My colleague, the Minister for Education and Science recently announced the procurement of 23 new post-primary schools and 4 new primary schools to be provide by PPP.

The success of the projects already completed, or under completion, can be built upon and I believe the introduction of fixed price lump sum contracts throughout the public sector will herald a new era in the procurement and management of public capital projects in Ireland.

My third initiative is to address value for money concerns by putting in place:

3. Ex-ante evaluations, including economic cost-benefit appraisal, for all projects above €30 million.

Currently, Department of Finance Guidelines require that projects with value in excess of €50 million are subject to full scale cost benefit appraisal.

I believe it is appropriate to reduce the project value level to €30 million. This approach will include identification and carefully quantified analysis of all the relevant project costs and benefits, including indirect costs as well as the identification of any risks of cost escalation.

The principle of cost-benefit analysis is that a project is only desirable if the benefits exceed the corresponding costs. However, meeting this criterion is not the final word on whether a project should proceed or not. This is because other projects competing for the same limited funds may have a higher return, when future streams of net benefits are taken into account. This therefore necessitates a fully inclusive approach regarding this particular initiative.

As part of this process I am directing all Departments and Offices to review existing contract specifications with the view to incorporating strict performance criteria, including achievement of key milestones, associated budgetary and financial information, and reporting requirements.

In addition I propose that:  

4. For large projects over €30 million, there will be formalised contracts review by the Departments concerned with reports to their Minister and with provision for audit by my Department.

This initiative is to help ensure two things. The first is to develop an overall, integrated approach to the management of larger projects within the public sector. The second is to signal to project managers on both the client and contractor sides the importance of ensuring that the original budget is not exceeded and to take appropriate legal or other action in any cases where this is not achieved. Knowledge of this, together with the other initiatives that I am proposing, will also significantly minimise the likelihood of budget over-runs.

Related to the last proposal is the next initiative:

5. Namely that there should be no extension of large service contracts without tendering if the extension is more than 50% of the original contract or exceeds €250,000, whichever is the lower.

This particular provision is designed to make both project managers and contractors more cost-aware and, coupled with my other initiatives, to minimise the probability of any cost over-runs. It also creates the right incentives for providers. 

6 More vigorous competition for public sector contracts

The development of smaller enterprises is important and public procurement can be used judiciously to help develop this sector. Access to public sector contracts by smaller entities has been greatly improved in recent years by the development of the Government’s e-tenders website that affords smaller companies much greater opportunity to compete for public sector contracts. Following active targeting of the SME sector, the number of supplier registrations has increased to over 27,000 (with growth of 77% in the past year). Suppliers are also facilitated with free email alerts to tender notices of interest to them.

My Department also issued revised guidelines last year which require all public bodies to use a competitive process for all purchases of goods and services - whatever the value. The degree of competition and the time taken to complete the process must, of course, be proportionate to the value of the contract but it must be open and transparent. I want to build on this and see SMEs competing much more vigorously for public contracts in the future and especially for contracts under €100,000.

I recently approved a policy framework that aims to facilitate a smarter and more professional approach to public procurement by Departments by requiring them to develop Corporate Procurement Plans to set targets to achieve savings, value for money objectives and the appropriate structural changes in their organisation. Such plans will set out the strategies to implement such change and I expect them to advance that work immediately.

7. Additional specialised training for the civil service and state agencies.

This will span the areas of procurement, project management and project appraisal, including ensuring the application of the analytical tools available for ex-ante, mid-term and ex-post project evaluation.

In particular, I believe it is important to institute a training programme for executives in charge of specialised IT projects or construction contracts. In this context I have asked my Department to make the necessary arrangements with the appropriate training providers including the Institute of Public Administration. My Department will be giving this priority attention and will work with the all our training providers to ensure it is reflected in the priorities of their training programmes.

Staying on the issue of human resources, I believe that there should be:

8. Open recruitment of a number of full-time specialists to the public sector in IT procurement and Capital Project Evaluation and Management.

And:

9. Secondment of IT procurement specialists between the public and private sectors.

Both of these initiatives are aimed at enhancing the ex-ante appraisal and ongoing management of capital and IT projects in the public sector. In the specific case of IT the objective is to increase the level of knowledge transfer between the public and private sectors in the area of IT procurement. Together, these initiatives will, I believe, greatly enhance the level of specialisation and ability of the public sector to implement and manage capital projects and the introduction of new IT systems in the public service. It will also help overcome the danger that in the current environment staff may be reluctant to proceed with necessary and cost effective IT investments.

The current partnership agreement includes measures relating to open recruitment in areas such as Information Technology, Human Resources and financial management to address skill shortages. This approach needs to be developed as a matter of urgency and I have issued the necessary direction in this regard to my Department

I also propose that there is:

10. Allocation of single individual responsibility for all major IT and capital projects.

This particular proposal is aimed at clarifying and enhancing the level of accountability on all major IT and construction projects – a key driver of delivering value for money on behalf of the taxpayer. The project manager will take the lead in ensuring that projects are delivered on time, to specification and within budget. They will be required to bring to notice of their Department’s or Office’s management committee and accounting officer any problems or overruns emerging in projects. Following further investigation a report on the matter is to be sent to the relevant Minister and my Department setting out the issue and the action to be taken to address the issue. This initiative, in addition to that providing for a more formalised contract s review, will be enhanced by the implementation of the other initiatives relating to IT and capital projects within the public service, including my proposal for the provision of additional specialised training for senior officials responsible for major IT and capital projects. 

On the issue of the purchase of land, property or other assets, I believe it is important to reconsider the use of compulsory purchase orders and I propose that there is:

11. Better use of compulsory purchase orders.

A compulsory purchase order or CPO occurs when an acquiring authority puts in place the procedure to acquire some land or property in order to facilitate public infrastructure projects.

As many here tonight will be aware, the basis of compensation for property acquired is market value. In particular, the principle of equivalence requires that the affected party is left in the same financial position after the CPO as they were prior to the process. Further, the level of compensation under a CPO is meant to reflect both the actual land acquired and the diminution in value (if any) of the retained area as a result of the CPO.

There are clearly defined steps involved in the CPO process, including on issues of objections and the level of compensation.

The Government are concerned at the impact of the cost of land on the overall cost of infrastructure provision. We have already introduced a mechanism through Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 whereby land is made available for social and affordable housing at below market price. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government intends to introduce a number of important legislative changes which will assist the State in getting a better deal when acquiring land by way of compulsory purchase order in the forthcoming Strategic Infrastructure Bill. In addition, pro-active use of existing compulsory purchase orders powers in appropriate circumstances may also facilitate the faster release of lands at a cost effective price for all forms of public infrastructure and I will be directing Government Departments to this effect.

Two themes running through all of the initiatives I am presenting tonight are accountability and transparency. These drivers of value for money in public expenditure projects are reflected in my next proposal, namely the publication of a:

12. Performance table for Government Departments and state agencies regarding the extent of project outcomes versus budgets on contracts.

This will serve to make the process clearer and more open to the users of project services – the taxpaying members of the public – and will provide a greater incentive for providers and those managing projects on behalf of the State to deliver goals on time and within budget. It will also highlight and give recognition to the many thousands of projects which come in at or below agreed budget.

The above measures are in addition to the recently announced new system for management and control of ICT projects in Government departments. These measures include a new cross Department review process and independent reviews over the lifecycle of projects.

In conclusion, I intend to give the highest priority to achieving world class public services at a competitive cost and I believe this is both achievable and necessary. This will be pursued with the same determination, competence and professionalism which has enabled us to secure full employment, sustained economic growth and rising living standards.


© Copyright 2007 by Finfacts.com

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