Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) (CS 1)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union, represents the overwhelming majority of staff employed by the Child Support Agency (CSA). We submitted evidence to the Select Committee last year at the time that the Secretary of State had announced the delay to the implementation of the Child Support Reforms.

  2.  At that time PCS supported this decision as we felt that it would have been disastrous for the Agency, its staff and its customers to have proceeded without a fully operational IT system. After an eleven-month delay the Secretary of State eventually decided to implement the new legislation for new customers of the Agency from 3 March 2003.

  3.  Unfortunately, despite this delay, the IT system is still not operating at anything like full strength. This is causing significant problems for staff and customers alike.

HOW WELL IS THE AGENCY COPING WITH THE NEW SCHEME?

  4.  The introduction of any new piece of legislation, combined with the introduction of a completely new IT system, would expect to face teething problems and difficulties in establishing a steady state of operations. However the performance of CSA since 3 March has been extremely poor.

  5.  The basic problem is that the IT system has not bedded in at all and is effectively preventing CSA staff from performing their job properly. This is perhaps best summed up by the most recent performance statistics that we have seen. These show that since 3 March CSA has had a total intake of approximately 60,000 cases to process on the new legislation, using the new IT system. Of these, less than 100 cases have resulted in the Parent with Care receiving at least one child maintenance payment.

  6.  The problems associated with the new IT system are many and complicated. Some of the worst problems are as follows:

    —  System availability has not been high enough. This means that the IT system has not been available for much of the working day. This prevents staff processing any cases at all, as all work has to be done using the new IT system.

    —  The IT system is very slow. This results in very long delays (hours rather than minutes at times) as staff try to move between screens. This in turn effects how quickly a case can be dealt with.

    —  The IT has a tendency to "hide" cases from staff dealing with them. Staff can be in the middle of processing a case when it simply disappears from the screen with no indication where it has gone. These incidents are raised with the IT support teams but it can take weeks for the cases to reappear.

    —  The electronic interface with Jobcentre Plus has not operated properly. Far fewer cases than predicted have come across the interface leading to a marked reduction in the Agency's average weekly intake. Unless there has been a sharp reduction in lone parents having babies or in couples separating, these cases are out there somewhere but are not being referred to CSA. At some point they will have to be dealt with.

    —  Many of the cases that actually do make it across the Jobcentre Plus interface cannot be actioned for a variety of technical reasons. This has the cumulative effect of greatly reducing the number of cases that staff have available to them to action and is delaying the progress of these cases towards maintenance calculation and establishing compliance.

    —  The new telephony system that was introduced simultaneously with the new IT has failed to work as planned. Many staff cannot use it for a variety of technical reasons. This has resulted in many in-bound calls from customers being sent to a limited number of extensions. This leads to engaged tones being heard or the call being sent to the wrong member of staff. This in turn leads to the caller having their call diverted around the agency until, if they are lucky, they get to speak to the correct member of staff.

    —  The IT system has so far failed to provide reliable electronic management information. This has resulted in staff having to produce management information clerically. An indication of the crisis in CSA is that managers are insisting that these clerical returns have to be produced on a daily basis by 9.30 am.

    —  The IT seems incapable of allowing staff the correct levels of access to the system. This results, for example, in non-managers being given the system access profile appropriate to a manager or to staff in one office being given access to cases held in another office.

  7.  These problems, taken as a whole, are very serious. Especially when you consider that EDS, the IT provider, were allowed an extra 11 months to get the faults out of the system before go-live. This does not appear to have happened. As a result an important strand of the government's welfare modernisation programme is at risk of being seriously undermined. It is PCS' view that serious questions need to be asked about their future involvement in public sector IT projects as a result.

HOW WELL IS THE SYSTEM INTERACTING WITH THE OLD SYSTEM?

  8.  The Secretary of State has consistently avoided declaring when existing CSA customers would be migrated onto the new IT system and then have their cases converted to the new legislation. For a long time CSA was planning on the assumption that the migration of existing cases on to the new scheme would begin in Summer 2003, with conversion to the new legislation to be completed by April next year.

  9.  But the CSA's Chief Executive told staff in May that this was no longer the working assumption and, indeed, the bulk migration of cases onto the new IT system has not yet begun. Now there is no timescale by when existing clients will begin to benefit from the new legislation.

  10.  This results in existing customers facing an even longer delay in having their case converted to the new legislation and increased uncertainty over their future finances. This in turn lengthens the period that CSA has to operate two IT systems and two sets of rules in tandem, but more importantly delays the anticipated benefits of the reforms such as easier calculations and quicker payments to children.

IMPACT ON CUSTOMERS

  11.  To date the impact has been largely hidden from most CSA's customers. This is because the vast majority of customers are still on the old scheme and the old IT system. Their principal problem is that they have no idea when they can expect to be assessed under the new rules.

  12.  Ministers have always said that they would not declare when existing customers would be moved onto the new scheme until they were confident that the new scheme was working satisfactorily. It seems inconceivable that this decision can be delayed much longer, as the pressure from customers will inevitably increase. But at present the new system is not working properly and shows little sign of improvement.

  13.  This uncertainty also puts staff in a difficult situation. They are the ones who have to explain to customers that there is no date by when their cases will be moved over. As time goes by this is becoming an increasingly difficult line to maintain and increases the pressure on frontline staff.

  14.  It is the new customers of CSA who are being effected most. Tens of thousands of cases have been stockpiled and had no action taken on them at all. In many of these, the cases have not even been registered on the system. These cases are already suffering lengthy delays in maintenance calculations being processed and to the flow through of money to children.

  15.  Those new customers who are having their cases dealt with on the new system are suffering from the impact of the IT and telephony problems mentioned above, as staff struggle to process their application with inadequate IT support.

  16.  PCS remains concerned that, as backlogs of work grow and the defects in the new IT system impact on productivity, customer reaction and complaints will become more pronounced. It is a common assumption amongst CSA staff that it is only a matter of time before this situation in CSA begins to attract wider publicity. Publicity that is unlikely to be beneficial or positive for our members.

  17.  The insistence on the part of Agency managers to increase the number of maintenance calculations on new system cases has led to the radical decision not to check the accuracy of any cases until after the calculation has been done and the decision passed to the customer. This can only lead to a fall in the rates of accuracy. On old rules cases, checking a case before an assessment was made was a tried and tested method of ensuring the Agency met its accuracy targets. However the drive for quantity seems to have pushed quality to the back of the queue.

IMPACT ON STAFF

  18.  CSA staff are very keen to see the Child Support Reforms work. They realise this is in everyone's interests, not least heir own. But the problems for staff on the New Client Teams dealing with new cases are becoming so acute that they are rapidly losing confidence in the whole reform process. Sickness levels remain very high and CSA continues to have significantly higher staff wastage rates than the rest of the Department for Work and Pensions.

  19.  CSA staff are having to bear the brunt of the new scheme's problems. The effect on staff morale of having to endure the inadequate IT system is huge. Staff at all levels are being placed under intolerable pressure. Demands are made to hit ever-higher targets with deficient equipment. Priorities are changed constantly and there has been an unwelcome trend for senior management to blame the performance of their frontline staff for the Agency's problems in delivering the reforms.

  20.  It is most definitely the view of PCS that it is not the fault of the Agency's frontline staff that CSA has got such serious problems. The same staff have, year on year, improved the Agency's performance and ensured increasing compliance before the new system came in.

  21.  The fact is that the vast majority of CSA staff had no say in the design of the Agency's new computer system let alone in building it. But it is clear to all CSA staff that it is the computer system that is the principal cause of the recent problems. It cannot be the fault of those staff if that system now does not work properly. The view of many of our members is that they are being asked to operate the new IT system with one arm tied behind their back.

  22.  Problems are compounded by the loss of any case ownership for individual caseworkers. The new system is designed so that cases are handled by several different caseworkers as the case is progressed. Staff therefore find it harder to build up any rapport with customers and are constantly having to familiarise themselves with new cases, only for that case to be moved by the IT system to another caseworker just as they were beginning to get to grips with it.

  23.  Staff were promised that the new system would finally relieve them of having to work with inadequate IT and poor legislation. The legislation is undoubtedly improved but the new IT system is not yet working as it should. Indeed, in the view of many staff, it is appreciably worse, than the old, much-derided IT system. The general consensus is that the job in the frontline of CSA has got harder and more demanding since the new system went live and that the promises of a more satisfying job have turned out to be empty.

  24.  On top of all this, staff morale has been badly hit by the decision to reduce staffing levels in CSA by a third over three years. The plan is to cut CSA staff from 12,000 now to 8,000 by March 2006. A reduction in staffing was always expected as part of the business case for the whole CSA reform project. But the scale of these cuts has taken staff by surprise.

  25.  The fact that there was an eleven-month delay in introducing the reforms has not led to an equivalent delay in the expected efficiency savings and staffing reductions. As a result, in the 2003-04 year, a staffing cut of 12% has been imposed. This would be bad news for staff at the best of times, but given the current problems affecting CSA it is too much for staff to bear. The inevitable result, already manifesting itself, will be greater levels of pressure and stress and consequentially lower levels of performance. It is worth remembering that most staff in CSA are paid less than £13,000 per year. There is only so much that people will put up with for that level of reward.

  26.  Even Agency management will admit that CSA has far more work to do if the new scheme is to be extended successfully to existing customers. But to try and do this with less staff and inadequate IT is a recipe for disaster. PCS is strongly advocating that the staffing reductions are cancelled until, at the very least, there is clear evidence that tangible improvements in performance have materialised, that real signs of efficiency savings are apparent and that all existing customers have been successfully converted to the new scheme.

CONCLUSION

  27.  It is the view of PCS that the Child Support Reforms are in serious difficulties. After just three and a half months it may be too early to be sure how serious these difficulties are. But the fact is that PCS members are contacting their Union constantly to complain about the pressures and stresses of implementing these reforms.

  28.  It appears evident to us that the primary cause of these difficulties has been the inadequate support for staff provided by the new IT system. The taxpayer does not appear to be getting the value for money on its investment that would normally be expected. We were promised a simple, state of the art IT system. Sadly that has not materialised as yet.

  29.  There can be no doubt that serious problems are emerging the longer that the new system is operating. These include increasing backlogs of work and an apparently indefinite delay in the decision to convert existing clients to the new scheme. In turn customer service is affected with the inherent risks of negative publicity, more complaints, and even heavier MP's postbags.

  30.  PCS is very fearful that CSA does not lurch back to the chaos of its early years. But to many staff that were around at that time, similar danger signals are present again now.

  31.  Through all this, CSA staff, our members, are struggling to keep the Agency afloat. The pressure they are under at present is totally unacceptable. There is a real fear that this bad situation could get even worse.

20 June 2003


 
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