The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection cannot say how much the 10-year Public Services Card project has cost to date.
The card, which is currently at the centre of a storm of controversy after being deemed to be illegal when applied to State services other than welfare by the Data Protection Commissioner, had been assumed to have cost just under €60 million at the end of 2017.
That figure has been most commonly cited in recent times following a review of the project by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2016.
At that time, a combination of expenditure as at end 2015 of €38.3 million and future commitments of €21.4 million led to an overall estimate of cost of €59.7 million to end 2017.
However, the Department of Social Protection - the body with chief responsibility for the card’s production, has now cited “development, production and maintenance costs” for the PSC as being €38.4 million after VAT.
When asked why that figure does not match, or even come close to matching, the estimates given to the C&AG, a spokesperson for Social Protection said: “As the identity authentication and registration functions involved in the PSC process have been incorporated into the day-to-day work of the Department, the staffing costs directly associated with the PSC are not readily available.”
The spokesperson added that the €38.4 million figure delivered in response to a query from the Irish Examiner is attributable to the “development, testing, personalisation, production and distribution cost of the PSC”.
Willie O’Dea, Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on Social Protection asked “who compiled that information for the Auditor General?” when queried regarding the discrepancy between the various costs estimates provided by the Department.
“We absolutely need clarity on this, this is public money and we need to know how it’s being spent, particularly as the statutory body set up to advise on this project has concluded that it is being illegally operated,” Mr O’Dea said.
“Obviously the information we were previously given was incorrect, and that has to be rectified.
"We need to know where we’re going with this, because we’re flying blind if we don’t know how much it’s costing,” he added.
One of the more noteworthy aspects of the C&AG report in 2016 was the revelation that no single business case had ever been prepared for the PSC, with Social Protection’s accounting officer explaining that fact at the time saying “it was not possible to properly estimate any cost until market testing via the procurement process had taken place” due to the “relatively innovative nature of the project”.
Last Thursday, before the Public Accounts Committee, the C&AG Seamus McCarthy described the preparation of a business case as “a fundamental requirement for any kind of public sector project so that there is clarity as to what you are trying to achieve”.
He added that not having a business case “just makes it much more difficult to manage a project in a value-for-money way”.
“It beggars belief that no business case was ever prepared,” said Mr O’Dea.
“One of the first things you do in the public sector is prepare a business case, unless you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t know what interaction there has been between the Minister and her civil servants, but this Department has been particularly reticent to discuss anything to do with this project.
"Social Protection fought tooth and nail to prevent it being published in the first place,” he added.