The Department of Finance complained bitterly over a new €115 million system meant to streamline public accounts, blaming it for incorrect calculations, slowing down civil servants, staff stress, and simple tasks taking an “inordinate amount of time”.
In correspondence, the department’s secretary general said it had even been hit with penalty interest because of delays in setting up basic data using the new Financial Management Shared Services (FMSS) system.
The Department of Finance was one of several departments and State agencies chosen for the initial rollout of what was supposed to be a new “simpler” system early last year. Yet, they soon ran into problems with financial reports that used to be delivered in moments now taking extended periods of time to generate.
“The impact of the reporting issues means that finance officers cannot quickly do the same searches that they could previously,” noted an internal paper. “Reports that took literally one second on [the old system] take anywhere from two to three minutes to over 10 minutes to run and sometimes the same report has to be rerun if the user does not locate the information required.”
The position paper added that reports which were generated were “very cluttered and difficult to read”.
The department — along with the Department of Public Expenditure — said the new system had caused a “material impact on the labour productivity of staff … Staff across the departments and their offices of Government are of the view that the system design is unnecessarily complicated and not intuitive especially if you are processing a new item for payment.”
In a letter to the National Shared Services Offices (NSSO) which spearheaded development of the new system, the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure said it was “simply not acceptable” that staff were being asked to use something that was less user-friendly.
The July 2022 letter, which was cosigned by the secretaries general of both departments, said: “It is vital to us that the state develops high quality digitalisation that increases civil service productivity. [This is so] more resources can be directed to the delivery of public goods for our fellow citizens rather than unnecessarily increase the cost of internal administration for little gain.”
In response, the NSSO said it was “extremely disappointing to hear of such reported dissatisfaction” despite encouraging signs from the system in the early weeks and months of its operation.
The NSSO letter added: “While I am very empathetic to the difficulties that staff may be going through at this time, reactions of frustrations and concern to this disruptive change are not unusual. The solution has been designed for the many, not the few, and consequently there will be benefits and trade-offs.”
In another document, the Department of Finance said the new system was actually causing “stress” for some staff and affecting the “smooth operation” of their work. It said this had led to mistakes and that reports generated were too “cluttered and busy” to be “user friendly or useful … Overall, the slowness of the system, as well as these other deficiencies is impacting on the department’s ability to respond to FOIs [freedom of information requests] and PQs [parliamentary questions].”
A letter from September 2022 also detailed particular problems around that year’s budget with the new system failing to produce an accurate exchequer statement for use by the department and Minister. That correspondence listed five separate areas that would have to be resolved before they could fully trust the system for use in the budget.
The letter said: “Regrettably, failing a resolution ... [the department] will have no choice but to pause the project for the exchequer element until such time as all issues have been resolved to the department’s satisfaction.”
A spokesman for the Department of Finance said: “[We have] paused the use of the FMSS system in one operational area of the department. This is to allow time for the system to develop capabilities better suited to that particular unit. The department continues to use the new system across the rest of the organisation. For example, just under 3,000 payments have been made on the system year to-date, with a value of nearly €7 million. The Department of Finance remains fully committed to the FMSS project.”