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3rd Dec 2022

IT bugs haunt work of EU fraud busters

  • Olaf investigators manage hundreds of cases a year (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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EU efforts to fight fraud have been hampered by bugs and delays in an €29m IT system meant to help manage investigations more efficiently.

Olaf, the European anti-fraud agency in Brussels, first installed the bespoke €29m 'Olaf case management system (OCM)' in 2016.

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Following years of problems, it is meant to go fully live in July — six years later.

But now Olaf's Supervisory Committee has issued a recommendation to the agency's director general Ville Itälä: he should carry out a "detailed cost-based analysis" of whether his agency should stick to OCM or switch to another system altogether, such as one already being used by the European Commission.

"It seems that the OCM database is not even adapted to Olaf's own investigatory needs", the committee wrote," in an internal EU report seen by EUobserver.

OCM "could adversely affect Olaf investigators' day-to-day work," the committee said.

Meanwhile, more than half of Olaf staff were happy with the pre-OCM system they had been using back in 2015.

But after OCM was installed satisfaction plummeted to seven percent and staff handed in more than a dozen pages of potential tweaks to make, according to EU documents.

Two years later, in 2018, Olaf staff were still saying OCM was "slow, unstable", that "whenever some [bugs] are fixed, new ones appear", and that it made investigations drag out "even longer" than before.

The commission's Internal Audit Service looked into OCM the same year and the Supervisory Committee cited worries about "repeated significant budget overruns" and neglect by senior staff.

One year later, in 2019, only half of Olaf staff who responded to a questionnaire said OCM was doing better than it was in 2016, while some said: "The system has been badly designed by inception and it and it would be difficult to improve it now".

Olaf declined to tell EUobserver if OCM's €29m cost was significantly higher than initially foreseen.

"OCM suffered from typical teething issues of IT systems of its size," it said. Any negative impact on investigations had "not been observed" it added.

Itälä, the Olaf chief, had taken OCM management in hand since joining in 2018 and "since then, the system's performance and functionalities improved significantly", Olaf's press service also said.

The system today was "stable and close to having all core business functionalities implemented by July 2022," Olaf said.

It pointed to the system's usefulness during the pandemic when most staff were working from home.

But even amid the 2020 lockdown a staff survey seen by EUobserver showed that just one-third of users were happy with OCM.

And while this was the highest number since it was installed, it still wasn't quite what EU taxpayers might have expected to get for €29m.

Olaf is meant to fight cases of fraud involving the EU budget and to root out corruption in the EU institutions.

It concluded 212 investigations in 2021 (a typical year), clawing back €527m in EU money, and opened 234 new ones.

It works alongside the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), a new body in Luxembourg that also combats EU budget fraud.

The EPPO opened more than 1,000 cases in its first year of work, it noted earlier this month.

But Olaf is not the only EU anti-fraud system to have faced IT problems.

The commission also operates a database called the 'early detection and exclusion system (Edes)', which is meant to block convicted fraudsters from accessing EU grants.

But the EU Court of Auditors in Luxembourg slammed the dysfunctional system in a report in May.

"Nobody really feels accountable for it. The commission does not have a central overview," Helga Berger, a court auditor, said, echoing the Olaf story.

Author bio

Maximilian Henning is a German freelance journalist based in The Netherlands.

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