Inquiry Not an Adequate Basis for Allocating Blame, Says Birch

  • Bill Birch

Conclusions allocating blame for difficulties with INCIS were premature at this stage, and not capable of being sustained by a balance of evidence, Finance Minister Sir William Birch said today.

Sir William, who heads the Ad Hoc Ministerial Group appointed by Cabinet last May to supervise INCIS project management, was commenting on the Justice and Law Reform Select Committee report on INCIS, which was released today.

He said the Select Committee's inquiry had inevitably been one-sided. Their focus had been on the public sector. The role of the private sector in generating the difficulties of the INCIS project had been largely ignored.

"It is in the nature of Select Committee inquiries to limit their focus to the public sector. But this inquiry was politicised by the proximity of the election.

"I understand, for example, that, in the space of 4-5 years IBM replaced the project managers working on the INCIS project something like a dozen times. The Committee has not addressed difficulties like that.

"In any case, a complete public investigation was always a virtual impossibility because the Committee's hearings were occurring in the context of legal claims filed by the Crown and IBM and possible future litigation if that dispute is not resolved.

"Though the Committee did quite a lot of work, the fact is that right now, some of the best legal minds in the country are dredging through all, not part, of the available evidence as the Crown and IBM prepare for a possible court case.

"Without disrespect to the Committee, the public can confidently expect the work of those legal teams to be a more detailed and and much more thorough than any review the Committee has been in a position to undertake.

"That is a fundamental limitation on the value of this report. The Committee should, in fairness to the public, have acknowledged the fact. The report would have been less open to criticism if it had done so," he said.
Sir William endorsed the findings of the Minority Report that the Committee, in addition to collecting evidence on a one-sided basis, had consistently evaluated that evidence in a biased way, based on the benefit of hindsight.

"The Opposition majority adopted a totally inadequate approach. It sought to hold people accountable on the basis of information that was not available at the time, and became available only months or years after decisions had to be taken.

"The Minority Report notes that at no time did the Opposition majority ask whether the decisions taken in the course of the project were reasonable in the light of the knowledge available at the time to the principal players.

"As the Treasury points out, officials had recourse to the best available independent experts consistently throughout the project, to double-check against the possibility of error or omission in their own knowledge and evaluations.

"A case has not been made out by the Committee that the decisions taken by public sector managers in 1994, or 1997 when the deed of variation was signed, for example, were unreasonable in the light of the knowledge then available to them."

He said that, as the Minority Report rightly observed:
"The majority of the Committee is foolhardy in thinking it can allocate blame at this stage, on the basis of an investigation which, no matter how long it has taken, is much less thorough than other investigations already under way elsewhere. We believe, therefore, that it is inappropriate for the Labour, Alliance and New Zealand First Members to ignore factors of such importance and drive the matter forward now, into premature conclusions."

"The most important loss for the Police, the Government and the public is not the cost over-run involved in anything delivered to Police. It is the loss of functionality consequent on IBM's failure to deliver Increments 2 and 3 to them.

"The report makes little contribution to solving that central problem. Proximity to an election and desire for political advantage distort the shape and timing of the report, and reduce the value of the Opposition majority's conclusions.

"The Minority Report rightly draws attention to these short-comings. The question of accountability is important, but can be addressed only in the light of the detailed review now under way, and the completion of the legal process."

Sir William said Police have now moved to integrate staff from the former INCIS project into their Information and Technology Group.

"Staff and contractors necessary for support of the technology syatems will be retained, and will form a nucleus for future development work. Other Police staff will be released for placement elsewhere in Police," he said.

"Some police staff will be transferred to other areas. Contractors who were working on the project will have their contracts terminated.

"This reduction in the number of people developing and supporting INCIS related programmes will not impact on the ability of Police to develop or build on existing systems at a later date," Sir William said.

"An applications maintanence and ehancement agreement is n place with IBM to ensure all systems currently delivered as part of INCIS are fully supported and that Police remain able to make enhancements to the system if necessary," he said.