In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public.

No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

Assembly business continues, check the business diary for information on Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 25 February 2009

COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT
(Hansard)

HR Connect

25 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Mr Simon Hamilton (Deputy Chairperson) 
Dr Stephen Farry 
Ms Jennifer McCann 
Mr David McNarry 
Mr Declan O’Loan 
Mr Paisley Jnr 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Mr Derek Baker ) 
Ms Patricia Corbett ) Department of Finance and Personnel 
Mr Tommy O’Reilly )

The Chairperson (Mr McLaughlin)

I refer members to the departmental briefing paper on the implementation of the e-HR programme and on the performance of HR Connect services. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) submission on end-user experiences of HR Connect is also in members’ papers, as is correspondence I received from NIPSA concerning an internal memo from the permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development to the permanent secretary of DFP, which gives an example of the problems. Also included is an article from the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ on 25 February, entitled: ‘Memo shows concern over civil service payroll firm’.

I welcome Derek Baker from the central personnel group; Tommy O’Reilly, the programme director for HR Connect, and Patricia Corbett, the service director at HR Connect. You are all very welcome, and I apologise for the delay; you sat through the previous session and therefore I think you can see that the Committee is very interested in this subject. The meeting is being reported by Hansard; therefore all mobile phones must be switched off. I invite you to address the Committee.

Mr Derek Baker (Department of Finance and Personnel):

Thank you very much, Chairman. The Committee has received our submission; therefore I will not go through that in detail. However, I will make three points about HR Connect by way of setting the context. HR Connect is part of a much bigger programme that is in place to transform the way in which personnel services in the Northern Ireland Civil Service are delivered. It is a major enterprise and a very complex and ambitious programme, of which HR Connect is but one part, albeit the centerpiece. As well as the organisational, structural and IT changes involved, there is a major programme of cultural and behavioural change, and, in many ways, that is just as challenging.

My second point relates to the implementation of the HR Connect element of the programme. We are making good progress with the implementation of the seven services that we intend to introduce: four are now in operation; two are in the final stages of testing, and our plan is to introduce those in March 2009; one final service has yet to be introduced, and we are finalising plans with the contractor for its implementation, which is targeted for the summer of 2009. Having said that, we are behind our original target, which was for full implementation by November 2008; we have missed that target. Nevertheless, we have made good progress and there is now good momentum behind the programme.

My final point, by way of context, is that this is a challenging programme. As the senior responsible owner for the programme, I do not mind admitting that it is hard going; it is hard going for me and my team, and, given the complexities involved, it is inevitable that there will be difficult issues to address. There are concerns around the current service that need to be addressed, and I think that we have reflected those fairly and honestly in our submission to the Committee. We know what the issues are and we have plans in place to address them. I am very confident that they will be addressed successfully and that we can achieve our objective of putting in place a very good quality HR service for the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That is all that I want to say at this stage.

Mr Hamilton:

I viewed, and still view, the roll-out of this programme as something immensely beneficial to the Civil Service. The objectives that were set still hold true. I appreciate your honesty and candour in saying that it has not been easy. The feedback that I have received from individual civil servants has been of great concern, and I am sure that I am not the only person in the room to have received such feedback. It is fundamental that a civil servant, or any worker, gets their pay at the end of the month. When, for one reason or another, that does not go right, it is problematic. It has even been brought to my attention that people were getting paid more than they should have been.

The Chairperson:

Were they complaining?

Mr Hamilton:

They were worried about when the money would be taken off them. Getting paid is such a fundamental aspect of somebody’s work that when it does not go as planned the repercussions are more severe than they might be with other aspects of the modernisation programme.

Many positive outcomes were anticipated for the programme, such as exploiting e-technology to reduce reliance on paper files; increasing the efficiency of HR service delivery by 5%, and even releasing around 500 civil servants from carrying out routine HR transactions. Those are all positive objectives and will, one would hope, be achieved as a result of the project — even though there are teething problems, which does nothing to ease my general concern that every major IT or information system project that will roll out in the Civil Service in Northern Ireland will have a tendency to have some problem. Nevertheless, all of the objectives are there, and they are very good objectives. How are you measuring progress to achieve those objectives? Do you have any analysis at this stage to say that you are on track to reach those objectives?

Mr Baker:

I will respond to your point about pay: I agree entirely. Of all the elements of the new services that we are going to introduce, the one that impacts most directly and most immediately on individuals is their pay, and I fully appreciate that. Elements of the service had been in operation for more than a year before payroll was introduced, but payroll was always going to be where the rubber hit the road. When we have to pay 27,400 people on the back of an extremely complex pay system and an extremely complicated process of migrating data from the old payroll to the new payroll, inevitably there will be problems. I do not consider myself an IT expert. However, I have spoken to many people who are experts in this field and who have managed a payroll transformation system, and they have made it clear that there will be teething problems.

In each of the pay runs that we have had to date, we have paid the vast majority of our staff — more than 27,000 — right first time, on the button, and on the due date. However, I accept that each month there have been pay inaccuracies for a variety of reasons. We are aware of the reasons, and I will not go into the detail. That impacts on those people personally. Naturally, they are concerned and anxious. The onus is on us to have the backup so that we can remedy the defects quickly and deal with the bigger issues — any defects in the system or in our processes — and we are working on that. I do not want, in any way, to underplay the importance of people getting paid right, and paid right first time. That is our objective; we are working towards it, and I am confident that we will achieve it.

As regards the overall benefits of the programme, one of the things that we did in the contract was to specify in great detail the key performance indicators and service levels associated with every service. The amount of time, effort and energy that went into prescribing that kind of detail in the contract has stood us in good stead. In order to give us the mandate to release any service charges to the contractor on a month-by-month basis, we get service reports based on those service levels, the service-level agreements and the key performance indicators, and we can track that over time. For the first time in the Civil Service, we have established a methodology to assess the value that we are getting from the HR function.

If, before the whole enterprise, you had asked me how good the HR function in the Civil Service was, what value for money it offered, and how it benchmarked against other organisations in the public or private sector, I would have had no way of measuring that. We have established those benchmarks, and we are using all of the data in the service levels, in the key performance indicators and from other sources, to aggregate up and to produce a high level HR scorecard, which measures our performance across a number of dimensions. We will be able to track whether we are getting better or worse, what areas we need to target for improvement and, importantly, how we benchmark against other organisations in the public and private sectors as regards HR delivery. That is all built into our processes.

We do not have full implementation of the programme yet, and it will be only after full implementation that we will be able to track through the realisation of all the benefits that were set out in the full business case. However, the processes are in place, they are robust and, for the first time, they give us the ability to measure HR value.

Mr Hamilton:

I presume that you are waiting until full implementation, and that includes the industrial wages needs.

Mr Baker:

The industrial payroll will be the last element. We are gathering service-level reports for the services already in place, which gives us the mandate to pay, so that we can track whether we are hitting both the volume, the quantity and the quality service levels that we are supposed to be delivering.

Mr Hamilton:

So, you are waiting until all those elements are on line before carrying out assessments to find out whether the objectives are being achieved. I presume that a post-project evaluation will not be carried out until after that point?

Mr Baker:

It will. We have already carried out a post-procurement evaluation, which examines in great detail the lessons learnt during the procurement phase, but there will also be a post-project evaluation.

The other point worth making is that the various services interact, to some extent. It is a bit of a jigsaw. Another set of services is coming on stream — internal vacancy management — and that will improve some of our data and some of the processes around external recruitment. Those processes are already in place, but we delayed some elements of the application and the software until later. So, we will not see the whole picture until everything is in place.

Mr Weir:

Thank you for your answers to Simon’s questions; they were quite illuminating. I appreciate that any system, particularly one involving IT, will have teething problems. The problems that our constituents have described to us have not simply been about a particular payslip being wrong; they have also told us about times when something major has gone wrong; albeit that that happens on relatively few occasions. I suspect that others Members will have had similar experiences. Even yesterday, somebody contact me to tell me that they had not been paid their allowances for three months. Unfortunately, I suspect that that small number of cases tarnishes people’s perception of the system.

The report refers to £1·5 million being recouped from the company for delays in implementation. Can you give us a bit more background on those delays? Also, what is the actual cost to the Department of pursuing that £1·5 million? What lessons have you learnt from that experience that will help to ensure that, in future, the companies with which you are dealing will provide the appropriate level of delivery?

Mr Baker:

The £1·5 million mentioned in the report relates to what we call liquidated damages, and they are provided for in the contract. We are not in the process of collecting that money; we have, in fact, already collected it. It was offset against service charges that we should have paid for services already in place. Rather than pay those service charges, we retained the money by way of liquidated damages.

In effect, the collection of those liquidated damages came about as a result of a lesson learnt from earlier stages of the contract. In November 2007, we negotiated a fairly significant amendment to the original contract. Again, that was because of a change in the deployment of the overall set of services, and, as part of that contract negotiation, we recovered costs from the contractor that reduced the overall cost of the contract.

When we negotiated the contract, we built into the amendment additional warranties — in other words, additional protections for the Department, that, in the event of further delays by the contractor, we would be able to recoup liquidated damages. Those damages were set at a level to cover the full economic cost of the Department’s having to keep in place its project team for longer than originally scheduled in order to manage the implementation of the programme. That is how the liquidated damages arose, and that is how they have been collected.

In addition to liquidated damages, which relate primarily to the implementation stage of the project, when the service goes live, the contract sets service levels. Alongside that, there is an abatement regime, so that if certain prescribed levels of service are not being delivered by the contractor, we can reserve the right to abate the service charges that we pay, and hold some of that back until such times as we are satisfied that that level of service is being provided. For example, we have already abated some of the service charges for the services in place, but, more significantly, each new service that goes live has a milestone payment, a capital payment, against it. That is prescribed in the contract.

In the past, however, we have also withheld significant elements of milestone payments to exercise some leverage with the contractor to ensure that any concerns that we may have are properly addressed. We have, therefore, a lot of protection.

Mr Weir:

To ensure that it is 100% clear, I presume that the abatement, or the collection of liquidated damages by way of not paying money over, effectively incurs zero cost. Is it true that collection incurs no cost because it is, in effect, a non-payment?

Mr Baker:

There is no cost of collection to the Department; it is simply money that we did not pay over.

Dr Farry:

To return to staff pay; will you give the Committee some idea of the numbers who were affected by underpayments or overpayments? What percentage of people are being underpaid or overpaid?

Mr Baker:

I do not have the exact details or percentages, but I can come back to the Committee with that information. The underpayment was a peculiarity, and I will deal with it first. In the January pay run, there was a technical issue that was, unfortunately, of our own making. In attempting to do one thing, we inadvertently created a problem.

I will try to be non-technical, because I am a non-technical person. We disconnected sick pay from normal pay. When a person is on sick leave, his or her normal pay stops and sick pay, whether occupational or statutory, starts instead. In January, we managed to break the connection between the two in the payroll engine. Therefore, the normal pay of people who were going on sick leave stopped, but they did not receive the sick pay to which they were entitled. Unless people are on sick leave for a long time, they do not notice any difference in their pay cheque.

The Chairperson:

They would notice if their pay was stopped.

Mr Baker:

Therefore, about 90 people were underpaid in January. However, on the other side of the coin, when others returned to work, their normal pay kicked in, but the system did not stop paying them sick pay and, therefore, about 130 people received sick pay that they should not have got. We have engaged with all of those people, and we will recoup the money in accordance with our policies. We have subsequently paid all those who were underpaid.

Dr Farry:

Over what timescale does that recoupment occur?

Mr Baker:

The normal Civil Service policy is that the money is recouped over the same period that an overpayment occurred. Therefore, if there was an overpayment in one month, we would recover it in the next month, except in cases of financial hardship, when someone has spent all of it. We noticed the problem with the pay run immediately, and we contacted all those involved the next day to notify them of the overpayment. Within a few days of that, we contacted them again to agree the arrangements for recouping the money.

Dr Farry:

What was the scale of either the underpayment or overpayment? What margin of error was there from the norm?

Mr Baker:

There should not be a norm: people should be paid correctly. The range of underpayments and overpayments varied depending on how long people were on sick leave. If they had been off sick for a month and had not received any sick pay, the underpayment equated to one month’s salary. If they had been off for only a day or two, the underpayment equated to that length of time. It depended on individual circumstances.

Dr Farry:

Are you saying that, in theory, there could be a 100% overpayment or underpayment?

Mr Baker:

In theory, that could probably have happened. I do not know how many such cases there were, but we can find out because we have the details and the records of each individual.

Dr Farry:

Is any safeguard built into the system to identify and prevent such a clear anomaly? Peter Weir and I know of an example from the Land and Property Services in North Down: a ratepayer received a bill for several millions pounds in arrears, simply because someone who was not paying attention kept pressing zero on the keyboard.

Mr Weir:

To be fair, the council would have been happy to receive that money.

Dr Farry:

As a pay run is going through, does the system flag up that someone will be receiving no money? Would something kick in and display an error?

Mr Baker:

Absolutely. I will ask Tommy O’Reilly to answer that.

Mr Tommy O’Reilly (Department of Finance and Personnel):

Immediately preceding each payroll, a series of reports are run in the shared service centre. Those reports examine, for example, anyone who is receiving gross pay above a certain level, normally around £8,000; anyone who is receiving nil or minus pay, and anyone who is receiving pay of less than £500. Each of those records is checked in order to ensure that there are valid reasons for people receiving those amounts and that no one is being paid substantial amounts or receiving an incorrect level of payment.

Dr Farry:

In theory, should the system fish out any really absurd errors?

Mr O’Reilly:

Yes.

Mr Baker:

We can identify very quickly, even before the pay run goes, anybody who is receiving no pay, and we can start to intervene very quickly to fix that instantly by workarounds.

Dr Farry:

Is there also a reconciliation process between the pay issued and what you expect to pay?

Mr O’Reilly:

When the payroll is run, it produces a series of reports for each Department called the gross-to-net reports. Those reports are reconciled in the finance community before they authorise the release into the bank accounts of Capita, our partners, to pay over the wages. Each month, Capita has to reconcile the bank account against the amount of cheques and payable orders made against the account. That must be reconciled back to zero. There is an entire cycle of audit around the payroll system.

Dr Farry:

In a situation where someone has been overpaid and is leaving the civil service, do you have step-in rights to reclaim money, or is that written off? I appreciate that it may be an unusual situation, but it is possible for a person to be overpaid in their final month in work, where there will not be a pay cheque issued in the next month from which to reclaim the money. Do you have step-in rights, or what is your legal authority in that respect?

Mr O’Reilly:

There are two steps to that. First, when someone announces that they are leaving, and their line manager inputs the fact that they have submitted their resignation into the system, we automatically hold their pay that month in order to ensure that we can check whether there are overpayments. We also calculate the person’s annual leave balance, because people have the right to be paid for the leave that they accumulate in the year prior to their departure. If there is any imbalance in the payments that are owed to the NICS, then we would automatically make the deduction.

If, however, someone slips through the net, and owes more than is available through their balance, then we have rights through our finance systems to chase them as being, in a sense, a debtor. We tell them how much they owe us, and they have to pay us back that amount. We chase that through the normal debt procedures.

Dr Farry:

The Committee has received correspondence from people with complaints about the level of service provided for those who ring for information. That information is not available. People have had different queries about their situations and no one has been available to answer their questions: they are left hanging. How is that being rectified at the moment?

Mr Baker:

That is one of our concerns; the capability of the shared service centre to provide the quality of service that we want to see provided. I think that the problems that we have had in the initial stages of payroll have directly impacted on that, because we are getting a very high volume of calls going into the shared service centre.

In addition, because of the way in which we managed the cutover to the new payroll — that was a function of risk management and mitigating risk — we had to stockpile a lot of data which is only being loaded onto the system now. That is to do with some of the allowances that people are due. There is a large volume of calls, which is impacting on the shared service centre’s ability to deal with things.

That notwithstanding, people expect a good service and have the right to have a good service. We are aware of that, and we have made the contractor aware of that. We have engaged with the contractor on those issues at the most senior levels, and the contractor accepts those points. We have plans in place with the contractor to improve the quality of service. That has involved putting more telephone lines in, increasing the resource at the other end of the telephone lines to deal with those queries and improving the processes within the shared service centre to resolve issues more quickly and get back to people to tell them that the issues have been resolved.

Dr Farry:

Are you going to introduce performance targets for the response times for those types of issues?

Mr Baker:

There are performance targets for all those issues. Perhaps Ms Corbett will comment on that, as she is the service manager who deals with matters such as service levels.

Ms Patricia Corbett (Department of Finance and Personnel):

The service levels for the shared service centre have very specific measures in place around call handling, call answer times, and call abandonment rate. Those are measured, and we get reports on a daily basis. That enables us to look at the trends and the issues that arise on a daily basis, and to try to take some sort of pre-emptive action, in collaboration with the contractor, to see how we can manage the situation.

All of the information feeds into a monthly report around how each service level is met, which we get from the contractor. You are right: to date, customer service has been poor, and we are striving to improve it. Service level measurements set the targets for achievement; the contractor is very aware of that and is taking steps to change and improve delivery.

Ms J McCann:

Thank you for your presentation. NIPSA has sent a paper including 10 questions, which you have had a chance to look at. Will you briefly take us through the Department’s answers to those questions?

Mr Baker:

I do not have answers for all those questions: I did not realise that I was going to be asked to answer all of NIPSA’s questions, and more to the point, I do not understand some of the questions — they do not make sense to me.

Ms J McCann:

Will you take the Committee through them anyway?

Mr Baker:

I can talk through some of the issues.

The full business case set out the value-for-money case for HR Connect and is predicated on neutral cost. The cost of the staff released from the HR function in the Northern Ireland Civil Service will be used to pay the service provider for the new services being provided; therefore, it is cost neutral. The full business case is not predicated on any cash-releasing efficiency savings over and above the money being used by the contractor.

Ms J McCann:

NIPSA’s first question asked what savings were forecast for the delivery.

Mr Baker:

Yes. I am making the point that it was cost-neutral; the full business case made it clear that the overall HR programme is designed to be cost-neutral. The current cost of the HR function in the Northern Ireland Civil Service will remain the same; however, we will be getting a new service for that cost. That was made clear in the full business case.

Ms J McCann:

No savings have been made to date?

Mr Baker:

That is correct. You need to bear in mind that the Civil Service was facing a situation in which it had three very old IT systems, the contracts for which were expiring, and the technology for which was obsolete and could not be sustained any longer. Therefore, we had to invest in two new payrolls and a new HR data system; there was no way around that — contracts had expired and the technology was obsolete. We were always going to have to go through a procurement exercise, which would have cost us more money — if one buys something new, one has to pay out more money to get it.

Ms J McCann:

Let us move to question 3.

Mr Baker:

We touched on that earlier. The liquidated damages in the current financial year — £1·5 million — have been collected from the contractor in relation to delays in implementation. In November 2007, we negotiated an amendment to the contract which reduced the overall cost of the contract to the Department by £5·2 million. From the milestone payment associated with the implementation of payroll, we have withheld £750,000 to date. I think that abatements to date amount to £75,000. Those are the figures that I have to hand on the amounts collected from the contractor. Will I answer question 4?

Ms J McCann:

I would like you to go through all 10 questions if possible.

Mr Baker:

None of our staff operate within HR Connect; HR Connect is a private contractor. Civil Service staff are just that; therefore none of them operate within HR Connect. However, as with any implementation project, it makes absolute sense that we work alongside the contractor, particularly during the transitional phase, to ensure that knowledge is transferred between the authority and the contractor until the contractor gets up to speed. That is the process that we are engaged in; however, we do not have any staff employed within, or by, HR Connect.

We did not have a target for the number of staff who would be shadowing HR Connect for each and every release. It would not have been wise to set such a target some years ago, because resources should be deployed to meet the circumstances of the time. That is what we are doing, and it is the sensible thing to do to ensure proper project implementation.

The Chairperson:

Civil Service staff were presumably deployed in response to some of the emerging operational difficulties. Those staff may not have been forecasted or estimated, but their deployment was the necessary and sensible response to the emerging difficulties. Is there any way of quantifying that? It must have been an additional cost factor that was not originally considered?

Mr Baker:

As a normal part of the project implementation, a major exercise was undertaken to compare the data of the legacy payroll and the new payroll when we were switching to the new one. In the first month of operation, or in the lead up to the decision to go live, attempts were made to compare what the old and new payrolls were showing that people were getting paid and to reconcile the data.

Over a weekend, we had six teams of three people from the Northern Ireland Civil Service working alongside HR Connect staff, but we regard that as a normal part of project implementation. We have people — who are part of our project team — working in the Metro Building on payroll and all of the other releases.

The Chairperson:

Does that indicate that you did not have to deploy a response mechanism, or additional personnel, as a result of the operational or teething problems being encountered? I understand the common-sense arrangements of transferring from one system to the other in order to ensure the migration of information, compiling of data sets and so on. However, was there a need to compensate for the deficiencies that emerged during the deployment of the project?

Mr Baker:

I understand what you are asking. Every month, after payroll, we have deployed staff to help identify and remedy some of the issues. Those people are not employed by HR Connect; they are our staff, and they are part and parcel of our payroll. We already have the financial cover for those staff, so it is not an additional cost per se. Tommy knows exactly which staff are working in the shared service centre.

Mr O’Reilly:

Before we went live with payroll, which was a new service, the Departments considered whether there was a need to provide some resource to support the shared service centre to aid understanding of some of the complex issues within the NICS pay system. Departments agreed to have a small team of five people working in the shared service centre to help it to transfer knowledge and understand those complex cases.

That was part of the work that we planned to do, and those people have been used to address some of the operational issues that have arisen. We have not put any people into the shared service centre to help work through those issues over and above that group. We always envisaged that there would be operational issues, but we did not envisage the amount that there has been. We have some resources in the shared service centre, and we are happy to provide details of that.

The Chairperson:

That would be helpful.

Ms J McCann:

Would you answer question 8?

Mr Baker:

I am sorry, but I do not understand the question. I do not understand what it is getting at when it refers to overtime generated by the non-release of any aspect of HR Connect programme.

Ms J McCann:

My understanding is that it is asking what overtime has been generated due to staff having to shadow existing HR Connect staff.

Mr O’Reilly:

I am also unclear about that question. There are no Department of the Environment staff working as part of the team in the shared service centre. We are unclear about what the question relates to specifically. Those people work as normal civil servants; they have conditioned hours and they may do overtime on the odd occasion, but it is nothing of significance.

Ms J McCann:

Was the overtime necessary because Department staff had to shadow HR Connect staff? Is that overtime normal, or is it because of the extra work that is required to shadow HR Connect?

Mr O’Reilly:

Those staff are not shadowing HR Connect.

The Chairperson:

We want to be careful about jumping to conclusions. You have sight of the NIPSA questions, and, therefore, you might indicate whether you intend to find out the precise meaning of those questions. The Committee is concerned that civil servants may be doing work that, at this stage in the project, we expect HR Connect to be doing. Is that the cause of the additional costs?

Mr O’Reilly:

No civil servants are currently undertaking work that we expect the shared service centre to do. We have a small team that is currently being scaled back, which has been helping to check the work and support the shared service centre on issues of quality. However, the fundamental role and responsibility for delivering services rests firmly with the shared service centre.

The Chairperson:

It would, perhaps, help the Department and the Committee to revisit the matter after you have followed up on the NIPSA memo and determined its concerns.

Ms J McCann:

I am unsure whether all my questions have been answered.

Mr Baker:

As regards the final two questions from NIPSA, in line with normal project management arrangements, we have various issues logs and defects logs, which are dynamic documents. After the release of one service, NIPSA asked us how many issues were raised. At the start of the launch of the service, there were 198 on the issues log. Three weeks later, there were two issues on the log. Therefore, I am unsure how valuable the question is. It is a dynamic process. Issues are raised, addressed and, subsequently, closed. That is how the system works. Issues will be raised all the time, and if you ask that question on any given day, the answer could be different. It is a dynamic process.

Mr McNarry:

I have read your paper and the NIPSA memo, heard your comments and, like many others, people have brought problems to me. All in all, you can be reasonably satisfied with your start, and I congratulate you, because it is a massive task. You have identified problems, and more will arise. I am unsure whether Sainsbury’s could have done better, but you have coped with it. Perhaps it is oversight, but I have not seen or heard the Department say sorry to the staff. If you have not done so, it might, perhaps, help to say sorry.

Mr Baker:

We have said sorry in individual circumstances. Last month, I mentioned the overpayments and underpayments relating to sickness absence. We made sure to apologise to staff for the inconvenience. I agree that if the Department causes inconvenience, difficulty or hardship to staff, we should, in order to maintain good customer service, say sorry. It is a fair point.

Mr McNarry:

I am glad to hear that. I can tell people that you are genuinely sorry, because you have now told me, even though I have not picked it up anywhere else. That matter is now cleared up.

Although it is easy, with hindsight, to come up with ideas; do you regret not piloting or phasing in the introduction of the service, or did you decide not to consider that option? Although it is now too late, it would be interesting to know whether you considered that option.

Mr Baker:

That is a fair question, and it is one that will be covered in the post-project evaluation. The way that we are rolling out the whole set of services is dramatically different from the way that was originally conceived. Originally, we were going to roll it out on a Department-by-Department basis — similar to the way in which Account NI is being rolled out. However, for various technical reasons we decided to move to the current system of roll-out, where we would deliver service X to all Departments simultaneously and then move on to service Y, and there were good technical reasons for that.

In a sense, by splitting up the programme and proceeding on a release-by-release basis, we have piloted it. We piloted elements of it. When we went live with what was called employee relations in late 2007; we went live first in DFP and OFMDFM, because that was the first time that we had tried to do that. We piloted it there first for a few weeks before we started to roll it out to the other Departments progressively through to January 2008.

In the months running up to going live with the non-industrial payroll — the big bang in November — there were many difficulties and dark days when we wondered whether we could go live at all. We did start to reflect on whether we could split a bit of it off and put it into one Department first to see what the impact would be, rather than go big bang. However, there were huge technical difficulties with that, which would have added enormous costs to the programme. We decided not to do that, and we went for the way in which we have released the services.

However, it is something that merits examination and consideration when we get to the post-project evaluation. We have done what we have done, and we are on the finishing straight for the overall programme implementation. However, there is much to reflect on and much to learn for the future for other projects.

Mr McNarry:

That is an excellent and interesting answer. I want to be comfortable in my own mind that you will be able to live up to the assurances that you have given us today — and you have given us quite a number. I am confident that you can, but I would like to hear you say that.

Mr Baker:

I, and my programme team, will do everything in our power to ensure that we deliver the service that we feel our staff should expect to receive. There are no guarantees in life, but I am confident that we will be able to deliver.

Mr O’Loan:

You may find that, to some extent, I am repeating some things that have been said already, so I ask you to say only what extra you feel is worth contributing.

I would not be just as complimentary as Mr McNarry.

Mr McNarry:

That is because you are in the SDLP.

Mr O’Loan:

I am surprised that you would make such a negative comment about the SDLP [Laughter.] I think that it is very positive in its approaches.

Derek, I support what you are trying to do overall and urge you keep on going in that direction. You have raised concerns about the capacity and capability of the shared service centre. I see references in your report to difficulties in dealing with large volumes of telephone calls at peak times; difficulties in processing the volume of data changes; that you are not happy with the large number of service requests being carried forward to the next month, and that you are not happy with the number of complaints. The permanent secretary of the Department for Regional Development has expressed serious concerns. You referred to their being a steep learning curve for both NICS staff and SSC staff, and, obviously, you are not at the top of that learning curve yet. Is there anything more you can say about the specific steps that you are taking to address those concerns, and will you tell us where are you with the training issue?

Mr Baker:

I will ask Mr O’Reilly to talk about what is going on in the shared service centre to address the deficiencies in service delivery.

Mr O’Reilly:

If we take the issue of the amount of data changes that have been taking place within the shared service centre and some of the issues around that, such as the processing of the business; when we went live in November 2008 we put a suspension on changes, which led to a significant amount of changes being rolled over into the December pay run. The shared service centre has struggled through December and January to get those cleared. They have been cleared and it is now at normal business levels. It has been running with approximately 1,500 callbacks, which impacted on staff.

In the past three weeks, using additional resources, they have been tackling the backlog, which has been reduced to 500. Furthermore, the shared service centre has allocated additional resources to address complaints. Working with the shared service centre, we are seeking to address the information issues in the back office that have been making it difficult for staff to access the service. By the middle of March, utilising additional resources and specialist support, which the shared service centre will bring in and pay for, we hope that the centre will be stable to run normal levels of live service.

The present difficulties are a legacy from when we went live and from Christmas. The first pay run was on 29 November 2008, and the second was on 19 December 2008, which meant that there was a short window in which to make changes. Immediately after the second pay run, we had almost two weeks of close down for the Christmas holidays. When we came back at the beginning of January 2009, we were quickly into the next pay run. In effect, therefore, those three pay runs took place over an eight-week period, which meant that the shared service centre was never able to get fully up to speed with the data changes. Having received additional resources in February, they were able to address problems, and we hope that things will be levelled out by the middle of March.

Mr Baker:

Mr O’Loan asked about training. We realised that introducing the new system would result in a big change in the way in which our staff would have to do things, so we invested heavily in face-to-face staff training and in having expert system users available to support them.

Electronic on-screen learning is an innovative aspect of the training. On entering the HR Connect portal, electronic learning packages are available to take people, step by step, through what they need to do. The packages are short and easy to use, even by someone, such as me, who is not particularly technically adroit. Supporting members of staff and line managers is crucial to the success of the system, so we have invested heavily in that and will continue to do so.

Mr O’Loan:

I welcome those answers, because the DRD permanent secretary suggested that, rather than teething problems being sorted out quickly, the problems did not seem to be being solved. I note what you have said, and we will monitor the situation in the hope that your assessment is the accurate one.

Ms J McCann:

Given what we have heard today, there are still major problems with the system which must be addressed, particularly given the current climate and as they affect people’s wages. Has there been any consultation with staff who have been on the receiving end of the new programme? Are they satisfied with the roll-out?

Mr Baker:

A formal review of staff satisfaction with the process has not been undertaken. However, a staff/customer-satisfaction performance indicator is built into the HR scorecard that I mentioned earlier, and we will continue to monitor that indicator, which is an important element of the whole programme.

Throughout project implementation, the programme team made intensive efforts to engage with the trade union, to keep it informed of progress and afford it an opportunity to have input to the programme’s development. In particular, a Whitley machinery subcommittee was established to deal with those matters. Unfortunately, the trade union appeared to be reluctant to engage in elements of the process. For example, when we began to design the application processes, which must be designed from scratch in order to reflect everything that the Civil Service does in the HR field, we developed a suite of process maps to demonstrate how things are done. We shared those process maps with our NIPSA colleagues; however, for their own reasons, they decided not to play a part in developing those processes. Obviously, that is NIPSA’s prerogative.

That notwithstanding, change management and stakeholder management have been an important part of our activities. We have invested heavily in communicating directly with our staff at each and every opportunity. We have informed them of what is happening, what the changes will mean for them and of the new responsibilities that they will be taking on. We have provided support to help them to do that, and we will continue to provide it.

The Chairperson:

Clare House was a pilot project. It seems that the health-check process was of some assistance. Have you considered such an approach?

Mr Baker:

No, not at this stage, but, as part of the post-project evaluation, we will want to consider that. In the future, we will be measuring customer satisfaction because it is part of the key performance indicators. We do not have plans for a formal health check, but it is something that we will bear in mind for the future.

The Chairperson:

As I understand it, the health-check process does not necessarily have to wait until the post-project evaluation has been conducted.

Mr Baker:

It does not; we can do it any stage.

The Chairperson:

Has the Department considered the value of asking PEDU to take a look the project, given that there are concerns, and because it is such a massive project?

Mr Baker:

Not to my knowledge.

The Chairperson:

I have had correspondence that gives an insight into the end user’s perspective. You have not had sight of it yet, but I have provided it to Committee members. It is in anonymous form, and I will pass it to you on the same basis. It is suffice to say that it involves the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA). The email raises questions about the fact that no formal training was provided on HR Connect, an issue which Declan O’Loan mentioned.

It also raises an issue — which I think is of some concern — that individuals who wish to query personal matters, such as an anomaly in their monthly pay, are asked to provide personal information to HR Connect. I understand why such information would be useful, but they are being asked to provide it within earshot of colleagues, and the question of privacy arises. That issue has been drawn to my attention by that email, which I will pass on to you.

Mr Baker:

I suppose that depends on the individual circumstances in which people are working.

The Chairperson:

Yes. Have you considered the issue?

Mr O’Reilly:

It is an issue that we all have to consider in our daily lives in that, when we make contact with any institution, we all have to go through some sort of security regime in relation to our personal data. We have to answer questions. Our primary concern was with trying to provide staff with an assurance that their data, which was held in the HR Connect system, was safe and that no one would be able to access that information without having gone through some form of security requirement. That was our first objective.

The Chairperson:

If the information is being provided within earshot of colleagues, that protection is worthless, because the security can be compromised.

Mr O’Reilly:

Of course it can. The way that the system works is that a series of questions, drawn from a bank of questions that were set up previously, are asked. If someone is listening to another person who is on a call, there is potential issue. From a system viewpoint, the broader security requirements try to ensure that staff are guaranteed their personal privacy.

The Chairperson:

I shall share that email with you. It is a bit unfair to bounce that on you, but I thought that it raised important issues.

Mr O’Reilly:

There is a particular issue with the DVA in that the vast majority of its staff do not have access to a computer, whereas the vast majority of civil servants deal with their transactions on a computer.

The Chairperson:

Is it the primary and preferred method to conduct business through a computer?

Mr O’Reilly:

That is the way that the system operates for the vast majority of staff, but that small group have to contact HR Connect by telephone.

Mr Baker:

When the user engages with HR Connect via the computer, he or she types in a personal password, which is the security protection. No one else can overhear that; it can be typed in when the user logs on to the system normally. However, as Tommy says, there are certain groups of staff in the Civil Service who do not routinely use a computer; their engagement with HR Connect is via telephone. In business areas such as that, staff members should have access to a telephone so that they can discuss personal matters with a certain degree of privacy.

The Chairperson:

I would have thought that the security guidelines would have addressed that: in other words, that a certain phone should not be used if it is an insecure means of conveying personal information.

Mr Baker:

Under the old system, everyone within earshot could have heard me when I telephoned pay section with a query. Where people sit and how they are accommodated is more a Workplace 2010 issue. Nothing has changed: if I talk to personnel section or to anyone else about my personal circumstances, there are people within earshot whether or not I give my password over the phone.

The Chairperson:

OK. It is a new project, but can you give us assurances about data protection requirements? Will you re-examine the guidelines that have emerged from the security review of last year’s unfortunate experiences?

Mr O’Reilly:

We can provide assurances; we have taken those issues on board and we have looked at our procedures, which were recently accredited by the NICS accreditation panel.

The Chairperson:

OK. Thank you very much. To return to a point that you made earlier, Derek; an issue was raised — it might have been raised by Jennifer — about the cost-neutral aspect of the new system as compared with the previous one. I presume that that is reflected in the business plan — I think that you said that it was.

Mr Baker:

It is reflected in the projections contained in the full business case, which is regularly and routinely revisited in order to ensure that those assumptions remain valid and that the actual costs that we have incurred remain within the tolerances that were set in the full business case. The full business case can be made available to the Committee.

The Chairperson:

The Committee will have some interest in that particular dimension. We would appreciate it.

Mr Baker:

It is an awfully big document.

The Chairperson:

I do not want to be swamped by the entire document — I do not think so, anyway. However, that particular aspect was intriguing. As you say, it is reviewed, so those assumptions and projections will reflect the ongoing review in the light of experience. That is that. Thank you for your assistance, and I apologise once again for the earlier delay.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs

Search

News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more