INCIS inquiry takes turn for the worse

The Government's decision to convert the Commission of Inquiry into INCIS into a Ministerial inquiry has a number of implications, some of which could preclude the Minister from receiving all the information he might need.

The Government’s decision to convert the Commission of Inquiry into INCIS into a Ministerial inquiry has a number of implications, some of which could preclude the Minister from receiving all the information he might need.

Labour has taken the decision because it doesn’t see value in spending as much as $7 million on the commission, adding to the $84 million already lost over INCIS. The Ministerial inquiry is expected to cost only $200,000.

So what does the government get for its $200K?

The terms of reference say: “To inquire into and report on the extent to which changes should be made in the management, development and implementation of major information technology projects by public agencies, based on lessons that can be learned from the development, management and administration of the INCIS project by the Police and departments (until the supplier indicated in May 1999 that it did not intend to complete the contract), and taking account of relevant work already undertaken or under way in the Police and departments.”

But the inquiry may not inquire into the merits of the subsequent legal settlement with IBM.

Headed by former Tranz Rail boss Francis Small, the inquiry “may convene, where appropriate, meetings of the Acting Commissioner of Police or his deputy, and chief executives or deputies of the Treasury, State Services Commission, Ministry of Commerce and other agencies as necessary to assist in preparing this review”.

The previous Commission of Inquiry had the power to subpoena witnesses from overseas. For example, former Deputy Police Commissioner Barry Matthews, who was a key figure in INCIS, is now in Western Australia.

A Commission of Inquiry has the powers of a District Court and can compel anyone to appear; they have the right to be represented by legal counsel.

But a ministerial inquiry is different. Small can speak to third parties — say, IBM, or consultants such as Price Waterhouse Cooper, which were involved in INCIS — but he has no powers of compulsion. They can choose to cooperate or not.

A Commission of Inquiry may be open to the public, unless the commissioner specifically wants to hear evidence in camera. But a ministerial inquiry is held in confidence. Essentially, the minister asks questions of the parties under the terms of reference, and they go off to prepare a report. Any critical findings are given to the parties involved for comment before they are made public at the end of the inquiry.

Justice Minister Phil Goff says he has” been advised that there was a serious risk that the costs associated with the Commission of Inquiry could escalate to as high as $7 million.

“This risks putting good money after bad. The cost to the taxpayers of this approach is greater than the value we are likely to gain from it.

“A ministerial inquiry without the requirement of a swarm of QCs and an excessively legalistic approach can achieve the same objectives at considerably lesser costs.

“A ministerial inquiry retains the element of an independent external review.”

Maybe. But if the non-government parties choose not to participate, the findings are always going to be subject to some doubt, particularly if individuals are to be penalised as part of the outcome.

Randal Jackson is Computerworld’s Wellington bureau chief. You can email him on randal_jackson@idg.co.nz. Send a copy for publication to cw_letters@idg.co.nz

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