The North’s shared services

Stormont columns4 eolas outlines the scale of the reform agenda and the main shared services in place for the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

A major reform programme in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) started under direct rule in 2004 and continued after devolution was restored in 2007. The NICS currently has 28,000 civil servants.

Enterprise Shared Services (ESS) is a directorate within the Department of Finance and Personnel. Its Chief Executive is Paul Wickens, who is also the North’s Chief Information Officer. Wickens is a former Managing Director (Ireland) for Steria. ESS employs 900 staff, and has a revenue budget of

£127 million per annum and a capital budget of £15 million per annum.

ESS was formed on 1 January 2010, to improve co-operation and co-ordination between six shared services: Account NI; the Centre for Applied Learning; HRConnect; IT Assist; Network NI; and Records NI. Another five have been added since then. Its overall aim is to “make a positive difference to the delivery of public services through being customer-focused, high performing and innovative”.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office has found that shared services projects took longer to reach contract signature than had been expected due to optimistic assumptions, changes at preferred bidder stage and unforeseen complexity. However, the Audit Office has noted that these types of delays are “not unusual” in projects of this nature.

Account NI

The financial processing centre for NICS departments, Account NI provides one streamlined service from purchasing through to payment of invoice to 23,300 staff. Orders can be placed through a web-based purchasing system that generates and issues purchase orders. When suppliers subsequently send their invoices to Account NI, these are scanned, recorded and matched to the relevant purchase orders. £12 billion of transactions were processed last year. This included 760,000 invoices, worth £2.8 billion, and 91 per cent of these were paid within 10 working days.

The service is delivered by in-house staff whose system and technical infrastructure is provided by an external contractor, BT Ireland. In 2013-2014, the volume of transactions is increasing as the Prison Service and Legal Services Commission join Account NI.

Legacy accounting systems were largely cash-based and delivered by seven different departments. The project methodology allowed for a controlled and organised start, middle and end. Progress was regularly reviewed against the plan and business case. Benefits include commonality, consistency, sharing of best practice, and increased flexibility and responsiveness.

Network NI

Network NI provides a single, dedicated, high-speed, network service connecting all NICS locations and delivering voice, video and data communication services. The contract, with eircom, was signed in 2007 and the service is provided by the company’s operations centre in Belfast. eircom has now been selected as one of 12 appointed suppliers for the Public Service Network in Great Britain. It also sees local government as a key area where technology can help to deliver reform.

IT Assist

IT Assist delivers common IT systems and services to 18,500 customers in the NICS and almost 40 other public bodies. It therefore provides staff with access desktop, email, internet access and Blackberry services and professional help between 8am and 6pm every day. Proof-of-concept work has been completed to replace multiple printers with larger multi-function devices.

Centre for Applied Learning

The centre is the main provider of training to staff in the NICS and offers administrative, management and leadership training. The centre offers over 100 courses, and a number of courses and programmes are linked to external qualifications and awards. All courses are delivered by professionally qualified staff, either within the centre or from an external delivery partner. The number of trainees went up by 40.5 per cent in 2012-2013 without increasing net expenditure.


This service supports the 12 NICS departments, the UK Government’s Northern Ireland Office and other participating organisations. It is responsible for external recruitment, internal vacancy management, employee relations, payroll, learning and development, and performance management.

Last year, it answered 124,383 calls and responded to 24,949 service requests. The contract was awarded to the Fujitsu Alliance, comprising Fujitsu, Capita, PwC and Oracle.

Records NI

This is a common electronic document and record management system storage facility which acts as a storage facility for the whole NICS. The system enables staff to have easy access to documents and records, allowing enquiries and requests for information to be processed more efficiently.

New services

The Enterprise Design Authority provides an IT strategy planning and management service to the NICS. Last year’s achievements included an NICS sharepoint and an agreed approach on open data. The Business Consultancy Service has provided organisational and senior management reviews in the Prison Service, Public Prosecution Service and other public bodies. The Information Advisory Service manages library services. The use of electronic resources by NICS staff has increased by 10 per cent over the last year. NI Direct is a multi-channel service which includes the Northern Ireland Executive’s official citizen-facing website (, telephone contact, SMS, mobile applications, web chat, social media and email. BT Ireland is its strategic partner and the website’s most popular sections cover motoring, employment and personal finance.

Properties Division

One shared service did not progress to the implementation stage. Workplace 2010 was due to undertake the sale and leaseback of managed properties for Civil Service use. It was cancelled in February 2009 as falling property values and “exceptional market conditions” made it difficult to obtain debt finance. In its place, the department has moved its properties division into ESS and leased office accommodation has been vacated to make savings.

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