Concerns have been raised over the Scottish government’s vetting processes after an official admitted there “might well be a conflict of interest” among academics who are due to advise the government on digital projects.
Colin Cook, Director of Digital at the Scottish Government, made the admission whilst being questioned by MSPs on the Scottish Parliament Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee on 26 October.
The committee grilled a team of top civil servants, including Cook, over the steps they have taken to avoid further information technology failures. The questions by politicians followed a series of bungled projects that cost the government hundreds of millions of pounds.
High profile failures include the Police Scotland i6 project with Accenture, that ended up being cancelled.
The project was supposed to save the public purse £200m but its collapse left Police Officers struggling “with out-of-date, inefficient and poorly integrated systems,” according to an Audit Scotland probe.
As part of a re-organisation of the civil service designed to avoid similar problems in the future, the committee was told that a panel of academic experts had been appointed to provide “challenge and advice” to government officials on the management of digital projects.
The panel was set-up to help the government complete a series of new IT ventures including a multi-million pound project for the computer system that will administer the new Scottish social security system.
But during the committee hearing it emerged that one member of the expert panel, Mark Thomson, also has a role with a consultancy firm that bid successfully for two contracts linked to the social security system.
The consultancy was not disclosed by officials in the written evidence they provided to MSPs in advance of the committee meeting.
Procurement records show Methods Digital, a division of Methods Group, won two contracts from the Scottish Government to manage the “Discovery” and “Alpha” phases of the Scottish social security IT system.
Prior to his involvement in Methods Group Mark Thomson worked for Anderson Consulting, now Accenture, as a “change management consultant.”
Another academic on the expert panel is Allan Brown, who is a professor at the University of Surrey. He also describes himself as a “entrepreneur and technologist.”
Before he became an academic, he worked full time for multi-national IBM for eight years to 2012.
On October 25 2017 IBM was awarded an £8.3m contract to deliver the IT infrastructure support for two new Scottish Government benefits.
When pressed by MSPs on the committee over the apparent “dual roles” of expert advisors, Cook said: “I am not aware of a conflict of interests, although there might well be one.
“I apologise, but I am not aware of anyone’s direct involvement with Accenture.”
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.”
Following the committee meeting, Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch, criticised the arrangement and said that academic experts used by the Scottish Government should not have commercial interests in the field they are asked to provide advice in.
She said: “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.”
Commenting after the committee meeting, Jackie Baillie 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.”
The full panel has nine confirmed academics and is yet to formally meet, but a Scottish Government spokesperson confirmed that civil servants had first met with Thomson and Brown in January 2017.
They subsequently persuaded the Scottish Government to set-up the advisory group and provide £15,000 to support its operating costs.
Government officials did not supply a register of interests for the group when Ferret journalists requested it, but they pledged that one would be published in advance of the first meeting of the group.
In response to criticism, Mark Thomson said that although he had not yet been asked to provide information for a register of interests, having a dual role as an academic and consultant can bring benefits.
He said: “I left Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) in 1994 and have had no involvement with them, or any of their projects, including Police Scotland, since.
“Methods delivered two small projects for Scottish Government during 2016.
“Several months subsequent to completion of these projects, in March 2017, I helped co-ordinate the establishment of a network for open discussion and critique to assist Scottish Government in building critical mass of digital skills and capability.
“Scottish Government provided a small seed grant, administered by University of Surrey, to cover travel and administration costs only.
“Whilst I was not asked to provide a register of interests, as a longstanding promoter of open standards and data, I have always been open about my dual roles as an academic and practitioner, and the many benefits that deep engagement can bring in bringing together the worlds of research and practice, as encouraged by government itself in its academic impact policy.”
He added: “At no point have I ever been party to [or given] any access to tender or other information that has not been wholly in the public domain.”
His colleague on the panel, Alan Brown, updated his online resume to remove a reference to a part-time contracting role he said he held with IBM after The Ferret contacted him.
“I left full-time employment with IBM over five years ago. I had a part-time consulting relationship for about one year after that while completing some tasks. I have had no such relationship in over four years. I have removed the out-of-date comment on my website,” he explained.
“Full details of my background and experiences have been available to the Scottish Government.
Brown continued: “I have had no involvement of any kind in any tenders for the Scottish Government.”
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.”