Committee Questions ‘Conflict Of Interest’ in Government IT Projects

Scottish Government IT

The impartiality of academics providing advice to the Scottish Government on large-scale IT projects has been questioned by a government committee, after links to industry giants were discovered.

The Scottish Parliament Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee  has voiced concerns over the independence of academic advisors, which was created to ‘challenge and advise’ the government on the management of Scottish Government IT projects.

A new report from the investigative news service The Ferret, highlights a number of instances where the advisors have commercial links to companies and organisations which won government contracts.

The committee questioned Colin Cook, Director of Digital at the Scottish Government, as part of an investigation into the failure and cancellation of several large-scale IT projects, such as the Police Scotland i6 project, which, according to Audit Scotland, left the force “with out-of-date, inefficient and poorly integrated systems,”

Scottish Government IT Advisors

To avoid similar problems a panel of academic experts was appointed to provide advice on managing digital projects and to help the government successfully complete a range of new IT projects including the multi-million pound project system to administer Scotland’s new social security system.

The committee investigation revealed that members of the panel were either actively engaged with vendors which won contracts from the government, or had worked for several years with winning contractors.

One panel member, Mark Thomson, has a role as co-owner of consultancy firm Methods Group. Procurement records show Methods Digital, a division of Methods Group, won two contracts from the Scottish Government to manage two phases of the Scottish social security IT system. The relationship was not disclosed by officials in the written evidence provided to the committee.

When questioned about connections between the advisors and contractors, Cook told the committee: “I am not aware of a conflict of interests, although there might well be one.”

According to The Ferret:

Pressed further by Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, who pointed out that officials were dealing with “multi-million pound contracts…so you need to guard against influence,” Cook added: “I know that we have looked into the biographies of those people.

“They have been proposed as experts, so we examined their credentials as experts. I will make sure that we have all the necessary documentation in place; if we do not have it already, we will make sure that we get it.

“Please accept my assurance that those people are not dealing at any level with anything that will result in a direct contractual award; that would not be appropriate.”

Due Diligence

Tamasin Cave of the public interest investigation group Spinwatch, said that academic experts used by the Government should not have commercial interests in the field they providing advice to: “There’s nothing wrong with government soliciting advice from academics on public sector reform. But, none of them should have a commercial interest in it. They should be independent. No consultancy should be given an inside track like this.”

Committee member Jackie Baillie MSP, said: “It appears from the evidence given to the Committee that due diligence was not undertaken by the Scottish Government to establish the business interests of the panel of academic advisers. Given the real challenges that the government has experienced with the delivery of IT projects, there must be no suggestion of a conflict of interest when contracts are awarded.”

Academic Advisory Panel

The panel of academic advisors was created in January 2017, after civil servants met with two of the advisors. The government subsequently provided £15,000 for operating costs. The nine confirmed panel members have not yet officially met.

Government officials could not supply a register of interests for the group when requested by Ferret journalists, but have pledged that one will be published in advance of the first meeting of the group.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the governance of the expert panel was for the academic organisations in receipt of the grant and added: “Independent academic organisations providing advice to the Scottish Government have their own project governance in place.”

“The Scottish Government will ensure that any commercial interests held by members of this panel are published prior to the first meeting, which is yet to happen.”

The complete report can be found on The Ferret website.

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