The Northern Ireland Audit Office says it has found “no evidence” government procurement provides value for money.
The damning report, Public Procurement in Northern Ireland, finds that the government demonstrates “a persistent culture of undue risk aversion” that can “distort and delay” procurement decision making.
Public procurement comprises 25% of Northern Ireland’s budget, with £3.4bn worth of public sector contracts awarded in 2021-22.
But the report concluded that Northern Ireland's Procurement Board – which is responsible for ensuring public spending delivers value for money – has not operated effectively.
It said: “Current structures and arrangements have not provided effective leadership, governance and accountability in public procurement.”
It added: “Without effective performance monitoring, and in the absence of appropriate data, the Board is incapable of demonstrating that the Northern Ireland procurement function represents value for money. Consequently, it remains open to the perceptions of widespread failure that have bedeviled it for many years.”
Despite the report welcoming a restructuring the Procurement Board in 2020 [which changed its membership from civil servants to a combination of public procurement experts and representatives from suppliers and the voluntary sector], it said: “High-profile procurement failures” have resulted in “diminished stakeholder confidence” in public bodies’ ability to manage public spending.
It noted that while there is recognition of the problems it faces, “there is also a general rejection of the notion that government procurement is fundamentally broken.”
Auditor general, Dorinnia Carville, said: "It is important to recognise that the Northern Ireland public sector delivers many successful procurements, [but] practitioners are often frustrated by what they consider blanket characterisations of how public procurement is managed and delivered.”
She continued: "At the same time, repeated criticisms, particularly in relation to large-scale construction and IT projects, do demonstrate that the public procurement function remains vulnerable to these negative perceptions of widespread failure and financial waste.”
She added: "While my report does highlight examples of recent progress, strategic weaknesses in procurement arrangements remain. Until these are addressed, the fundamental changes to culture, structures and processes that are needed will not be achieved."
The report recommended the government must execute a strategy to deliver value for money; build procurement skills; ensure independent oversight of public spending; and improve its data and transparency.
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