AN external organization is to be commissioned to evaluate whether the £100 Spend Local card scheme was value for money.
Stormont’s economy committee heard on Wednesday that the Department for the Economy (DfE) is to look to the private sector to undertake “an independent post-project evaluation” of the £145 million initiative.
The £100 card scheme, which was opened to 1.4 million adults in the north, was the anchor to DfE’s £290m post-covid Economic Recovery Action Plan (ERAP).
DfE subsequently returned £29.8m unspent from the ERAP at the end of 2021.
A letter to the economy committee from the department said the Spend Local evaluation “will have the broad intention of determining whether the scheme was successfully implemented, achieved its original objectives, and provided an economic stimulus for the local economy”.
It was also heard that the scheme had created a massive amount of data, which will eventually be broken down to show where people used their cards - broken down by area and standard industrial classification codes.
The Northern Ireland scheme was inspired by a similar project in Jersey.
However, in its evaluation, Jersey’s Public Accounts Committee concluded it was difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the scheme, mainly due to a lack of data to measure the additional expenditure generated.
It also criticised the high spend with food retailers, who were already performing well during the pandemic.
A major criticism of the Northern Ireland voucher scheme was the fact it ran into the peak Christmas spending period, raising questions over the level of new spending generated.
Meanwhile, citing the revelations published in The Irish News this week, which reported how hundreds of Invest NI staff were diverted from their normal work to verify tens of thousands of Spend Local applications, Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd also questioned whether the ‘lost opportunity cost’ could be quantified from that decision.