Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 110)



  100. Given the argument that you heard about the need for integration between policy and delivery, you are therefore unintegrated and therefore you are incapacitated because of that. How would you respond to that?
  (Ms Cleveland) I think the argument about integration is not whether you are an agency or not, it is actually about the culture of the department and the way actually individuals work within the department. Social Security has a whole range of separate executive agencies, but actually now works in a very integrated way, but I think did not probably two or three years ago. I have to say I had an intense sense of frustration for the job I had prior to the one I have now, still in the Agency, where we did think there was a very big gulf between the delivery and the development of the policy and how it was going to be implemented. I think there was a view that actually delivery of policy was delivery of a legislative framework of actually getting a Bill through the House and then producing some guidance, but not actually then how was it delivered when it actually came to interface with the customers. I think now there is a view of you have to design policy and design legislation to be delivered if you actually want to deliver the outcomes that the policy intends in the first place.

  101. Do you not think the Agency is disconnected from some of that process by the very nature of being an Agency?
  (Ms Cleveland) I think it was, but I think the way in which the Department is now running—I have corporate responsibilities within the Department as well as my specific Agency responsibilities. The various heads of the client groups that we now have have an end-to-end responsibility so they are brought to account for delivery as well, which is delivery of the outcome not how do you actually manage the offices or anything, but actually ensuring that the policy intent is achieved.

  102. Michael has asked about the service issue. Looking at that, it was the disconnection between policy and delivery that seemed to be a big part of the problem?
  (Ms Cleveland) It was because policy was then seen to be sorting out the legislative process, dealing with Ministers, and delivery was thrown over a wall to people who then had the responsibility for the particular guidance and suchlike. Now we have actually amalgamated that end-to-end responsibility for a lot of the products with our policy group. I focus on the operational delivery.

  103. This is like saying that you are endeavouring to overcome the problems of an agency system?
  (Ms Cleveland) I think we were endeavouring to overcome the way in which the agencies had been implemented. I do not think it was a fundamental flaw of agencies and policy groups, I think it is actually the way they are implemented and run in departments.

  104. I think we are going to have to get you back to talk about this.
  (Ms Cleveland) Yes.

Mr Trend

  105. Can I ask one more question while we are talking so generally and you are being very helpful. It often amazes me how a public service can get into a muddle over computerisation. There are examples in all departments, and I will not mention any particular one. What is the lesson you have learnt from that? The IND seem to be essentially saying that they do not particularly mind if they have it or not. If a company did this the board would be sacked and the company would go bust. Why does public administration find it so difficult to modernise their systems? I know it is trying and no doubt trying extremely hard. What is the problem?
  (Ms Cleveland) I think sometimes being too ambitious, and I think in many of them there has been a serious lack of contingency planning. Computer projects always take longer than you think.

  106. Is that a financial concern or across the board?
  (Ms Cleveland) I think it is the same in the private sector, it is just that they are not nearly as visible. They might be a bit visible to shareholders. Computerisation projects inevitably end up taking longer than people first thought. There is inevitably things like staff training that are under-estimated. I think people tend to under-estimate the effect it might have on productivity while it is being implemented. Often, in order to get a business case accepted, you are saying this will deliver a 30 per cent efficiency, when actually you are going to have a dip. It is actually going to be less efficient whilst it is actually being implemented. I think a lot of it is failure to actually develop proper contingency plans.

  107. In some of these cases it would appear to me that the concept was wrong in the first place and there is a fatal flaw right from the word go. Do you have a favoured scheme which would make your computerised system all singing and dancing? Is there a way in which it could be done in your Agency?
  (Ms Cleveland) There is an incremental programme to do it. It could not possibly be done "big bang". Because of the size of our system you have also got to think about how do you migrate cases. One day you are doing a case on a particular computer system and you cannot overnight just change it to another computer system. You have to work out how do you migrate those cases while having the continuity of the supply to the customer. We are paying benefits out to the most needy people in the population, so we have got to have good plans for actually ensuring that that happens. If you take one of the bigger changes that did come in, if you look at job seekers allowance, which is a piece of work we did jointly with the Employment Service, they only started off by entering the new claims on to the system and we kept the old system going for the existing cases. Turnover in the system migrates some of them anyway, and then after nine months we did a programme to move the old cases across. When you are talking about in the future, it is not our immediate plan but when you replace something like the pensions system you have got to think very carefully about how you move your ten or 11 million customers from one system to another without interrupting their benefit payments.

  108. Is that on the radar?
  (Ms Cleveland) There is a plan to actually replace all of the DSS legacy systems. It is going to be a huge challenge for us because at the heart of the concept is moving away from dealing with people perhaps on a benefit by benefit basis into actually managing individuals. That gives us a challenge. The first one, for example, is the creation of a personal details database so that we do not have to ask a customer for their personal details for income support and incapacity benefit and DLA, for example. We can catch that information once and we might use it for verification purposes, but we do not have to do it. Then, when you have done that, we have got all this information on all these files, on all these separate systems. So you have got to do a lot of data cleansing to ensure that the data you hold about Alexis Cleveland on one system is the same that you hold about her on another system. While they have all been run independently they could be very different. So there is a huge data migration issue that we have to take on board. The other challenge that I think will face the DSS is that, as we tighten up financial controls on the systems, because clearly we want to have financial services standards on our financial controls, because at the moment we cannot do double entry book-keeping on encashment order books, for example—we can do it at a global level but not at an individual level—to cut over to that in one go could mean that we ended up with millions of rejected cases every day. So those things have got to be very, very carefully planned.


  109. Just finally, there is some smart money on the DSS being abolished. On your argument about its cultures this really would cause you not to bat an eyelid?

  (Ms Cleveland) The DSS might be abolished, but there will have to be some sort of framework for the ongoing delivery of benefits, child support, the new pension service and job centre plus. In terms of do we think we could make it work within a different framework then yes we could. The real challenge for the creation of a job centre plus and the pension service is going to be the demerger of the Benefits Agency and the demerger of other services. If you take a benefit like income support, it is paid, and there is a legislative framework, to people of pension age, and we call it "minimum income guarantee", and it is paid to people of working age. If you have got a single system running through, to actually get separate accountability structures to go into two departments, for example, would be very, very difficult and I think would take at least two years to really work through. April 2003 I think would be the earliest you could actually separate those out.

  110. It sounds as though we have been putting these cases in the right quarters. Thank you very much for coming along and we look forward to seeing you in the future.
  (Ms Cleveland) Thank you very much.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 2 July 2001