Stockpiled claims that never made it into the computer system, files that were deleted for no clear reason, and incorrect information that was intentionally entered by demoralized staff in a desperate attempt to keep cases active. These are all parts of a decidedly difficult picture painted in a report commissioned by the U.K. government to assess the child-support case management and telephony system of the U.K.'s Child Support Agency (CSA).
The problem-plagued, £456 million ($863 million) CSA system involves a Java-based application developed by Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as well as a telephone call center system from BT Group's consulting and systems integration business. The CSA system, launched two years behind schedule in March 2003 and £256 million over budget, has been blamed for delaying payments to tens of thousands of single parents.
"Some innovative members of staff had attempted to find alternative solutions to the problems caused by the fragile IT system, in order to provide better service to clients. Staff were not always entirely sure how near they were to breaking rules," according to the report, "Child Support Reform: The views and experiences of CSA staff and new clients."
Some at the CSA were so frustrated with the IT system that they simply broke down in tears. "Others told us that all kinds of members of staff were succumbing to tears: male and female, old and young, experienced and new," the report said.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for overseeing the CSA, commissioned the report from the Personal Finance Research Center (PFRC) at the University of Bristol. Most of the 64 staff interviews were conducted in April last year, according to a PFRC spokesman. The report itself was submitted in September to the DWP, which in turn published the paper on March 24, he said.
The DWP on Tuesday stressed that improvements have since been made to the system, reducing the impact of the report. "The information in this report is quite old; a number of new software releases have been made and there has been significant improvement," a spokesman for the DWP said.
EDS is still working with the DWP to get the system "satisfactorily functional," the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Alan Johnson said last month in a House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee progress report. He also revealed that the DWP has withheld £13.3 million in payments to EDS over the last two years.
However, despite the progress being made in addressing problems with the IT system, the CSA is expected to delay the transfer of hundreds of thousands of cases from its old systems until next year, the PFRC report said.
"We will not jeopardize cases where money is already flowing to children by moving them onto the new system until we are sure it is working properly," the DWP spokesman said Tuesday.
The report, which assessed not just the new IT system but the entire overhaul of the CSA that was undertaken at the same time, consists of interviews with 42 administrative officers and 12 executive level staff members, as well as 58 clients. The CSA employes 10,000 people.