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Northern Ireland readies for £60m IT overhaul in wake of blistering contract criticism

Committee earlier blasted "absence of basic contract management controls"

Northern Ireland's government is going to market with a £60 million contract for cloud and support services for its IT Assist which provides common IT infrastructure services to more than 21,000 public sector customers across the civil service, government departments and more than 40 non-departmental public bodies.

Part of the government's Enterprise Shared Services, operating out of the Department of Finance (DoF), IT Assist handles desktop computing, network infrastructure, telephony, data centre storage facilities, server hosting/support and helpdesk functions -- in short, the bulk of Northern Ireland's corporate IT services.

In a tender posted June 17, contracting organisation the Department of Finance said that it was looking to "engage a partner for IT Assist (within DoF) who can not only support the existing infrastructure but will also be able to supply new technology and carry out new and innovative projects... The vision is that IT Assist will be able to not only replenish and maintain their on-premise environment but also use public cloud facilities."

Northern Ireland IT Assist contract is for a chunky 7-years

The Northern Ireland government is (perhaps controversially in an era of increasingly shorter contracts) planning to sign an initial seven-year deal with the option of up to a five-year extension, the tender said.

The DoF has faced blistering criticism including from Northern Ireland's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Audit Office (NIAO) in recent year over how it manages IT contracts including with BT -- a major supplier to the government -- with the PAC in 2021 saying "the Committee was left with no option but to conclude that significant opportunity existed for BT to generate very large profits... at the expense of citizens and fee payers."

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In a paragraphs suggesting almost absurd levels of incompetence PAC revealed in its January 2021 report that a £50m million contract (the Strategic Partner Project) with BT to provide "Information Technology solutions, skills and capabilities to support public bodies move citizen services online" signed in October 2012 had an initial seven-year term with "an option to extend the initial term for one further three-year period (to October 2022).

"While individual departments were responsible for managing projects procured through the Strategic Partner Project contract, overall responsibility for managing the contract fell to DoF. In October 2018, DoF confirmed that it had mistakenly considered [sic] that the contract term was for ten years (rather than seven). As a result of that error, it was not possible to terminate the contract by the end of the seven years because alternative arrangements to ensure continuity of services had not been put in place. Total expenditure to October 2022 is now estimated to be in the region of £110 million – more than twice the original contract value."

"Staggering" absence of "basic contract management controls"

PAC added: "The Committee struggled to comprehend how DoF could have misunderstood the contract length... The absence of basic contract management controls in this case is staggering and has proved costly to the citizen. The Committee considered that when it came to protecting public money, there was a culture of indifference" it added in its report early last year, saying: "This was epitomised when the NIAO queried significant overruns on [another BT contract to operate a digital land registry] contract and were met with a 'so what?' response..."

The public sector contract codes in this new tender suggest a sweeping array of responsibilities will be handed over under the deal spanning everything from WAN's to desktop hardware; professional services to hardware disaster recovery consultancy services, via database services. The contract comes after IT Assist touted its strong relationship with BT in responding to the demands of Covid, with one government infrastructure manager noting: "We faced an unprecedented challenge... to enable thousands of civil servants to work from home so they could continue to provide vital services. We needed to move quickly and on a scale never seen before. The department was ready to deliver 5,000 remote connections across the service, but the ask was for over 20,000 connections."

"A team of 12 worked with BT around the clock, seven days a week to deliver an additional 15,500 civil service connections via secure remote access (SRA). At peak, the organisation was supplying 1,000 laptops a week while also ensuring the requisite security, licensing, internet, and network capacity" IT Assist noted.

Northern Ireland, via IT Assist, "adopted a range of communication platforms [in the wake of this wholesale shift to remote work] including Cisco Jabber which provides audio, video and instant messaging; audio conferencing facility BTMeetMe; and finally WebEx for voice, video and content sharing internally and externally.

Tenders for the new £60m contract need to be in by July 23.

See also: 1 mainframe, 2 critical databases, 43 police forces, 1 big headache