Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

The trials and errors of NI Water

Water

As the Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy sacks four Northern Ireland Water board members following an investigation into the awarding of contracts, BBC News Online looks at an organisation with a troubled past.

"I'm interested in change management, and this job has change management challenges in spades."

When Kathryn Bryan took over as chief executive of the Water Service in 2005, she was aware of changeable conditions ahead. Perhaps even she did not see how torrential the storm was going to be.

She was appointed as the person who would manage the transition from the Water Service to Northern Ireland Water, a government-owned company with operational independence.

Since that changeover in 2007, there has barely been any sustained period of fair weather.

Dismay

A series of controversies and blunders has blighted Northern Ireland Water's reputation.

Among the casualties have been Kathryn Bryan herself who left her post following a miscalculation in the company's accounts which meant an increase in proposed household water bills.

Those bills have never materialised as politicians at Stormont have repeatedly postponed their introduction despite some arguing that the NI Executive cannot do without the income.

That political uncertainty has been mirrored by a lack of surefootedness in the company's operation.

Perhaps the most obvious mistake was the miscalculation which emerged in February 2008.

Breach

The shortfall of £20m in 2010 would have meant an average of £30 on household bills had they been introduced.

A report by the utility regulator said the mistake was a potential breach of the company's licence and ordered it to draw up an action plan to review the deficiencies of management.

NI Water's public image was not helped when it emerged that Kathryn Bryan had left her post a few months later with a severance package of £266,000.

In 2009, another blunder meant non-domestic customers, who do pay water bills, had been overcharged.

Kathryn Bryan
Former chief executive Kathryn Bryan left her post in 2008

In some cases, these customers had been billed as much £4,000 more than they should have.

There were also other customers who had been undercharged. Overall the expected loss of revenue was in the region of £250,000.

Contracts

Conditions have not improved much in 2010.

In 2010, the BBC revealed that the company had launched an investigation into how an employee awarded a contract to an outside company before going to take a job with them soon afterwards.

Both the individual and the company were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the investigation said lessons ought to be learned.

It recommended that in future Northern Ireland Water should introduce a "robust approvals process" that while respecting the rights of individuals to move jobs would also take into account the company's reputation.

Mr Murphy's decision to relieve four board members of their posts came after a separate investigation into the awarding of contracts.

It was commissioned by the top civil servant at the Department of Regional Development and the chief executive of NI Water, Laurence McKenzie.

It found that there was a serious breakdown in the control framework in the organisation.

In short, that the awarding of contracts was not happening in the way that it should have.

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy is adamant that the changes are operationally required.

He will perhaps also be hoping that such a dramatic intervention will help to restore the organisation's reputation and ensure that blue skies are ahead.



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