CSA chiefs left floundering as move to new system threatens to overwhelm them

Parents hit as Child Support Agency wrestles with data migration.

Parents hit as Child Support Agency wrestles with data migration.

Every month IT manager James Hennessy has hundreds of pounds taken from his bank account unnecessarily. And there is nothing he can do.

Eventually the government agency that takes his money will untangle the mess in its administrative and computer operations. But when it does Hennessy will receive not a penny in compensation.

Hennessy is European IT manager at Scapa, an international adhesive film manufacturer. He is also a "client" of the Child Support Agency. Every month, he makes payments to the agency by direct debit, which passes the money to his former partner to help support his children.

His payments are nearly 40% of his net salary. But under new simplified CSA rules, he has been told by the agency he should be paying only about 20% of his net salary.

The agency has told him he cannot reduce his payments until his case is transferred from an old computer system to a new one, but it has given no date for when this will happen. The new system came into operation in March, so Hennessy has already paid thousands of pounds more to the CSA than would be necessary if his case were on the new system.

In an e-mail to Hennessy on 15 October, the CSA said, "We have been given no indication as to when existing cases will transfer onto the new system. We have only been told that government ministers will transfer existing cases when they are happy that the new system is working effectively for new cases."

There are about one million cases on the old system that need to be transferred to the new system. In some instances the absent parent will have to pay more under the new system, which operates a simplified structure for calculating payments. But in many cases, including Hennessy's, the absent parent will pay much less.

Hennessy told Computer Weekly, "Every month I am being penalised because of problems in administration that have nothing to do with me."

Meanwhile, every week that goes by without the old cases being transferred to the new system, thousands of claimant parents on income support lose what effectively amounts to an extra £10, which was introduced under the new rules in March.

Hennessy and other clients of the CSA who are hoping that their cases will soon be transferred to the new rules and new system can expect to be disappointed.

Computer Weekly has learned that the CSA is sinking in an administrative and IT quagmire that runs deeper than MPs and claimants have supposed. An investigation by this magazine that began in August has established that the agency has no clear solution to its difficulties, has no real idea of when it will transfer one million cases from its old computer system to a new one, and has not told the whole truth to Parliament about the extent of its problems.

In its Parliamentary replies, comments to the media and statements to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the CSA has blamed its computer systems, supplied by US company EDS, and said that it cannot transfer old cases until it is satisfied that new systems are working satisfactorily.

A CSA spokesman said last week, "I can confirm that there have been teething problems, and these have been more than we expected. Ministers have always been clear, however, that they want to be confident the system is working well with 'new' cases before we transfer the existing case load [approximately one million] onto the new system."

It is acknowledged by staff at the CSA that there are serious computer problems, but this is not the only reason the agency has failed to transfer cases to the new system. Those working for the CSA say there are anomalies, inaccuracies or incomplete data in about a quarter of the records of the one million cases that have yet to be transferred to the new system. This figure was obtained by extrapolating from statistics derived from experimental transfers of cases from a virtual old system to a virtual new one.

One view within the CSA is that the percentage could be higher. Up to 40% of the old records could have defects, omissions or anomalies in the data.

In some cases the record could be rendered complete and accurate by, for example, checking and confirming what appears to be an incorrect postcode. But in other cases multiple checks would need to be made to confirm the accuracy of information.

We have learned that there are up to 14 million items related to records that need validating, correcting or checking - a figure the CSA refuses to comment on.

On its old system, the CSA was able to make payments to claimants even if there were inaccuracies or omission of data in the records. But the new system is workflow-based and requires the CSA's staff to fulfil the system's requirements before payments are processed. Usually CSA employees cannot, for example, go past step five on a form unless they have answered the question posed by the system. They can tell the system to "remind me later" but if they fail to answer the question, the system will keep showing a reminder. Normally staff cannot quit or close cases until they have answered the questions.

Some CSA officials only came to realise the pervasiveness of the inaccuracies in the records on the old system when they began trial transfers of old cases to the virtual new systems. According to one executive at the CSA, there is a "stash" of cases in which payments were made on the old system while awaiting checks on the data that were never made.

It could be that part of the CSA's difficulty in transferring old cases to the new system is because of the software's exacting needs, the way it is unforgiving of mistakes, inaccuracies and omissions - and not entirely because of the now well-recognised problems with the introduction of the new system.

Staff say that screens go blank for no apparent reason, and have complained of long response times at the terminal and other unwanted characteristics of the new system, though these are occurring less often than before as bugs are eliminated.

But the challenge of how to tackle the outstanding 14 million discrepancies, many of which require human intervention, remains.

Computer Weekly has also been told that bringing the data in all of the old records up to a uniformly high standard could take a year, or longer, because CSA staff are committed to coping with existing work.

The agency is considering taking on more staff, or contracting out the work to cleanse records, although both ideas would be costly to execute. It is also considering phasing the transfer of records from the old to the new system, although this could lead to CSA staff being inundated by calls from parents who want explanations of why their cases have or have not been transferred to the new system.

Another option would be to cut the number of cases that need to be transferred by up to third by putting "inactive" cases into abeyance. An inactive case is where, for example, claimants no longer appear to need the CSA to act as an intermediary to ensure that an absent parent pays child support.

Even if this idea were adopted, it would leave unanswered how and when the other two-thirds of cases would be transferred. A further option would be to relax stringent rules in the new system that detect anomalies, inaccuracies and incomplete data. This would make it easier to transfer cases to the new system but it could render the new database as defective as the old.

Staff on the project said the CSA is considering all these options but has not decided which one to choose. It is likely that the agency will adopt more than one option. Computer Weekly was told that executives have been given a target of moving all cases to the new system by the next general election, though there is no certainty the target will be met.

So for Hennessy, and hundreds of thousands of other clients of the CSA, there is a seemingly indefinite period of not knowing when they will make the "correct" payments under new the rules.

Despite these uncertainties, the CSA continues to imply that the problems are the fault of new systems.

On 18 August, the agency told the sub-committee of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, "The software required to facilitate bulk conversion of the migrated cases from the old child support scheme to the new is not expected to be available until next spring."

On 20 October, Work and Pensions minister Chris Pond was asked in the House of Commons by MP Paul Goodman when the one million cases would be transferred. He replied, "We have said that we will transfer the old cases to the new scheme as soon as we are sure that the software and the other parts of the mechanism are working properly."

To laughter, he added, "Despite the giggles from the opposition front bench, we want to make sure that parents with children in their care and the children whom they are caring for get the resources that they need. It would be irresponsible for us to try to transfer all the old cases across until we are sure that that will happenÉ When we are satisfied that the system is working properly and that the software is running properly, we will transfer the old cases across."

Clearly the magnitude of the challenge in transferring cases is much greater than has been admitted; but did not the CSA anticipate and plan for such a huge task?

Computer Weekly has learned that scale of the migration exercise was always known but was put to one side in favour of solving day-to-day managerial problems. The task seems to have been regarded in the same way as a credit card bill that is so large the card holder cannot contemplate paying it.

A CSA spokesman said, "The contractual arrangements with EDS for both systems [old and new] always envisaged parallel running of both services. The duration of this period was at the discretion of the department and was intended to ensure that [the new] CS2 [Child Support System Service], as a major new service, was fully stable and established before [the old] CSCS [Child Support Computer System] was decommissioned."

Asked if there was a lot more work to transferring cases than ensuring that EDS's new systems work properly, the CSA declined to answer the question, saying it was not specific enough. We rephrased the question, "What work is involved in transferring cases other than ensuring that EDS's systems work properly?" In a prepared reply, the CSA acknowledged that the problems did not relate entirely to the new systems

A spokesman said, "As anticipated, in addition to the automated process there is some clerical action on those cases which do not transfer successfully, for example there is a mismatch in data between CSA system and Jobcentre Plus system".

But he declined to give any indication of when old cases would be transferred to the new system.

EDS declined to comment.

Hiding behind confidentiality?        

Computer Weekly asked the CSA to provide a detailed briefing on the challenges it faces but it has declined to do so. 

We have also put a considerable number of questions to the agency but it has declined to answer many of them because of what it calls "commercial confidentiality".  

Now the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has formed a sub-committee that will hold a formal inquiry into IT projects that are managed by the CSA's parent organisation the Department for Work and Pensions.  

One of the issues that will be investigated by the sub-committee is whether "commercial confidentiality unnecessarily obscures proper transparency and accountability". 

An announcement by the committee two weeks ago said, "The sub-committee will then look closely at the Child Support Agency reforms. In addition to the issues outlined above, the inquiry is expected to examine closely CSA's relationships with IT suppliers, staff, and customers."  

Computer Weekly will be passing the material uncovered in its investigation to the sub-committee.    

CSA's problems at a glance   

  • Up to 14 million items related to records need validating, correcting or checking  
  • One million cases need transferring to the new system 
  • CSA insiders say there are inaccuracies or incomplete data in 25% of cases.   

Ten-year struggle at the CSA   

1992: EDS signs a 10-year services agreement to support new software for the Child Support Agency.    

1993: The CSA is formally established. It uses the Child Support Computer System supplied by EDS. Its job is to support government plans to ensure that children whose parents do not live together are financially supported.   

April 2002: A new EDS system, the Child Support System Service, is due to go live but ministers decide it needs more testing.   

September 2002: CSA tells Parliament that testing of the new computer system has been "progressing satisfactorily".   

November 2002 The new EDS system goes live internally to support a simplified structure for payments.   

January 2003: Secretary of state for work and pensions Andrew Smith says, "[The system] has proved to be more complex than originally thought, and we have reached a negotiated agreement with EDS to share those costs, with it meeting its share under the contract."    

3 March 2003: New CSA scheme is introduced. It is based on a simple percentage rate of maintenance payment: 15% of net income for one child, 20% for two children and 25% for three children or more. Smith says it will be "more transparent and easier for parents to understand" and will allow the CSA to "spend more time enforcing payment and ensuring that children get the support they deserve".    

May 2003: CSA says internally that it is no longer working on the assumption that it will move old cases to the new system in summer 2003, according to the PCS union. No date is set for moving old cases.  

July 2003: The CSA confirms that the cost of the new EDS system has risen from £427m to £456m.   

October 2003: Minister Chris Pond is asked by MP Paul Goodman when up to one million cases will be transferred from the old system to the new. Pond's reply suggests that ministers are waiting until EDS's system is working properly. "We have said that we will transfer the old cases to the new scheme as soon as we are sure that the software and the other parts of the mechanism are working properly."    

November 2003: Computer Weekly reveals that cases cannot transfer to the new system in part because of the poor quality of the data on the old system and that there are up to 14 million discrepancies, omissions inaccuracies or anomalies in the data.


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