The Child Support Agency's new IT system, finally up and running after a delay of almost a year, is already causing concern among users and MPs.
A damning report from the Public and Commercial Services union warned that the system, supplied by Texas outsourcing firm EDS, is beset by serious problems.
Designed to help implement the government's child support reforms, the system went live earlier this year, nearly 12 months behind schedule.
The delay allowed EDS to undertake exhaustive testing but the PCS union, which represents the majority of CSA staff, said important glitches have still not been ironed out.
In an official submission to the work and pensions select committee earlier this month, union officials warned that the new IT system is causing "significant problems" for both customers and staff.
"The basic problem is that the IT system has not bedded in and it is preventing CSA staff from doing their job properly," the submission said.
The project also raises questions about the level of openness in major public sector IT contracts. Even the Work and Pensions Select Committee has been unable to obtain a full version of the contract and the government is saying it will provide a copy with the "commercial in confidence" sections removed.
Undoubtedly, the stakes are high for a project which is at the heart of the government's child support reforms. Under the terms of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, the system should provide simple maintenance calculations based on 15% of a parent's income for one child, 20% for two children and 25% for three children.
Before the new system, agency staff spent 90% of their time calculating maintenance payments. Officials say that staff should now be able to devote more of their time to chasing payments and providing a better service. The new system also aims to speed up the processing of payments from about 20 weeks to a target time of six weeks.
But, according to the PCS, less than 100 cases out of the 60,000 processed on the new system since 3 March have resulted in the parent receiving at least one maintenance payment.
Union officials also warned that the new system has not been available for much of the working day and claimed it was too slow.
Not surprisingly, the government has played down the situation. A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions, which oversees the CSA, said about 14,000 new applications for child support had been resolved since 3 March. "All new IT systems, particularly of this size, take time to bed down. We anticipated teething problems and we are working with EDS to resolve them," she said.
Nevertheless, until the system has proved its ability to cope with the agency's backlog of one million cases, the CSA is only processing new cases received after 3 March.
"We want to ensure it works well with existing cases before we extend it to the caseload," said a CSA spokesman.
But MP Rob Marris, a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, said he thinks it unlikely that the existing caseload will be processed within the next 12 months. "Given the track record of this project, I have some doubts whether that will be achieved. It will need to be closely monitored," he said.
Marris, who was on the select committee when it took evidence from CSA chief executive Doug Smith earlier this month, warned that the agency is lacking expertise on two crucial fronts.
"The first is in-house technical expertise for this type of software. The other concerns contract design in terms of penalties and stage payments," he said. "I am not sure the Department for Work and Pensions has sufficient expertise in that regard."
Since the new system was delayed last year, there has been speculation that the government underestimated the complexity of the project.
Last summer, in a rare move, EDS appeared to lay the blame for the delay at the government's door. A statement from the company confirmed that the system, although undergoing testing, was already complete.
It went on to suggest that the goalposts had been moved. "The system is highly complex and more complicated than originally anticipated due to a change in government requirements," the statement said.
Observers say the problems with the system underline the importance of effective teamwork. Martin Sexton, director of IT at systems integration specialist London Market Systems, said, "There are obviously some fundamental issues that need to be resolved and it is therefore paramount that both the supplier and the customer work together as a team to overcome difficulties."
Sexton also warned that both parties should avoid creating a blame culture as this could prove highly damaging. "Staff should not be covering their backsides when they should be fixing problems," he said.
The precise nature of the government's agreement with EDS is still unknown and this raises serious questions about the lack of transparency in major government IT contracts.
Sexton said, "One has to wonder what happened to the government's commitment to openness and transparency in awarding contracts. Given this example, it still seems that nothing has changed."
Last year the government was urged to open up its service provider agreements to greater scrutiny, following the spectacular collapse of its flagship Independent Learning Account scheme.
The recommendation, by a cross-party committee of MPs, was part of a report criticising both the government and IT supplier Capita for their poor management and flawed implementation of the £55m training programme.
However, despite the government's contract with EDS increasing in value from £427m to £456m, Marris feels it is still under control. "I do not get the impression the contract is spiralling out of proportion. There are problems with big IT projects for any large organisation in the public or private sector," he said.
CSA's IT problems
- Inadequate system availability prevents staff from processing cases
- The system is very slow, resulting in long delays as staff try to move between screens
- The system has a tendency to "hide" cases. The union claims staff can be in the middle of processing a case when it simply disappears from the screen
- The interface with Jobcentre Plus is not working properly. Far fewer cases than predicted have come across the interface, leading to a marked reduction in the agency's average weekly intake
- The system has so far failed to provide reliable management information, resulting in staff producing the information clerically
- The system seems incapable of allowing staff the correct levels of access within the system.