Government departments have failed to follow correct procedures put in place by the Department of Finance and Personnel, which led to the ‘inadequate appraisal’ of their spending on consulting services, uncompetitive tenders and a lack of proactive management of consultancy assignments.
An audit office spokesman confirmed it was not possible to bring the DFP’s permanent secretary in front of a public accounts committee, which would be the normal chain of events, due to Northern Ireland’s lack of a devolved administration.
But he said that the report had ‘garnered a lot of local public feeling’ and that the DFP was currently working on developing new guidance to be presented to the audit office.
The report, published by John Dowdall, comptroller and auditor general for Northern Ireland, found that spending on consultancy in 2002-03 was £18.6m, a dramatic increase on the 1998-99 figure of £10.5m.
A framework, created by the DFP’s oversight body – the Central Procurement Directorate – to help control and list consultants interested in working with Northern Ireland departments, had not been followed.
The ‘limited use’ of the framework led to increased consulting services costs and broke EU procurement regulations. ‘We estimate that full use of the agreement during 2002-03 could have resulted in additional savings in excess of £2m,’ the report stated.
Government departments had a ‘lack of awareness at operational level’ on the DFP’s guidance for best practice in consulting services procurement, and the DFP has been urged to update the guidance to take account of ’emerging best practice’.
Although the report found that the onus was on departments to provide DFP with complete and accurate information, it said that the DFP should encourage these same departments to check their systems are operating effectively.
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