A number of local authority housing benefit departments are being held back by antiquated IT, according to research from the Audit Commission.
Auditors warned, "Housing benefit sections are often struggling to cope as a consequence of outdated IT." The Housing Benefit Administration report urged local authorities to build the IT capacity that will deliver improved housing benefit services in the future.
A grim picture emerged of inadequate IT systems often being a factor yielding poor response times and access, as well as unreliable services.
Inspectors at one local authority reported that a new IT system introduced in April 2000 had more than 1,000 defects.
The paper is one in a series based on information emerging from Best Value inspections and other research. Some IT systems were found to be outdated, with some between 10 and 20 years old. The result is that council staff do not get the necessary information they need.
At another authority, inspectors said, "The procurement of this new [IT] system and the migration of data from the old system presents considerable risks as well as opportunities for improvement." It is essential that the project is managed effectively because both continuity and timing are critical to success, they added.
Against this backdrop, new technology offers the greatest opportunities and the greatest risks to local authorities, the report said. "There can be unrealistic expectations that new IT will cure all of the weaknesses in the department." On a more positive note, however, it highlights the significant benefits that technologies such as document image processing, video conferencing and electronic data management (EDM) are providing to council housing benefit departments.
The London Borough of Lewisham was praised for its use of video conferencing to allow claimants visiting its main enquiry office to speak directly to benefits staff.
Elsewhere, Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council has employed EDM to cut outstanding work by a third and now expects to increase access hours for customers.
The report also called for caution on the part of local authorities when it comes to project management for new IT schemes. Councils should identify the resources they need and undertake realistic business planning, it said.
The same level of planning should also apply to outsourcing projects. The report urged, "Outsourcing itself does not automatically result in improvements, it must be carefully planned and put into practice."
Auditors warned, however, that modernising IT will increasingly require complex negotiations with a handful of large suppliers whose systems can interface with other council departments and meet the e-government agenda.
Over three million households in England and Wales rely on housing benefit to enable them to pay their rent. This involves authorities paying out over £10bn a year on behalf of central government.
A string of housing benefit IT projects have hit controversy over the past few years.
Earlier this year, for instance, Hackney Council brought the processing of claims for housing and council tax benefits back in-house after ending a £70m outsourcing contract with local government IT services specialist ITNet. The termination of the contract was marked by mutual threats of legal action and difficulties in bringing the service back in-house.