Tony Collins and Mike Simons
Attempts by the Child Support Agency to bring about reform through introducing new technology have repeated some of the most serious mistakes of past government IT-related projects.
A report (see box) on the views and experiences of CSA staff and managers has provided graphic details of the problems at the agency. It shows that plans to simplify the calculation of claims and payments were enacted as an IT scheme, rather than an exercise in change management.
It details the resulting difficulties and revealed that internal communications about the project were regarded as "intended to encourage optimism rather than inform".
This compounded the frustration of staff when problems with were encountered
The report draws attention to concerns among staff about the lack of consultation over the CSA's reforms and design of the systems. It also confirmed what IT staff on the project have said for more than a year: that ministers are wrong to blame only the technology for the agency's problems.
Staff were oversold the benefits of the technology; the implications of the changes on working practices brought about by the IT-led reform were not fully understood; managers had a "strong sense of hierarchy"; and there was a "reluctance to participate in free and frank conversation when different grades met".
The report says, "As a result information is moving more slowly than it might and is being filtered as it passes between levels." Each grade of manager was "sceptical of the level of understanding of those above." Some higher executive officers and upwards were putting on a "positive front." One told the report's authors that above a certain managerial level executives were "painting the roses red".
The report continues, "Even when staff were in a position to talk to someone who might listen, they felt stifled by concerns from above about what they might say. In one office we were told that staff were coached before talking to senior visitors..."
Similar concerns were highlighted in an independent audit report published in 1999 on management of a £337m project to introduce IT systems at the Swanwick air traffic control centre in Hampshire. That report blamed delays and cost over-runs in part on the management culture of emphasising how well the scheme was going, and trying to play down - internally and externally - the seriousness of problems.
NHS IT staff have said similar problems characterise the multibillion-pound scheme to modernise the health service - a dislike of dissent and criticism and an over-emphasis on the benefits of new systems although stakeholders want factual information on what is happening, or not; and if there are difficulties what these are and what the implications will be.
At the CSA, IT staff said the project suffered from being regarded by management as a technology scheme first and an exercise in change management second.
One IT professional working on the agency's systems, said, "The original flow chart was: we have new rules, we will need a new system, then we will have new processes. That is totally backwards. It should be: we have new rules, therefore we need new processes, therefore we need technology to support those processes."
He said that new business processes should have been trialled manually first and plans drawn up on how these could be simplified and brought into effect among staff. Only then should the design of IT be considered to support the changes, he added.
Instead the CSA considered the introduction of its CS2 system to support the simplified calculations as mainly an IT project. "Unfortunately, there was no business process engineering to speak of," said the CSA specialist.
The lack of planning for managing change is manifest in the demoralisation of staff, said IT professionals. For example, the report on the CSA showed that staff are aggrieved that the new system has no "notepad".
On the CSA's old system, calculations could be made without the need to always complete a series of mandatory fields. The old system also had a notepad which allowed free-text entry so staff could record details of conversations with clients and the progress of claims.
But the CSA found that staff were using the notepad rather than categorising the information and entering it into the system's designated fields. Without such data, the agency's managers were hampered in having an overview of how cases were progressing. For this and other reasons, the CSA specified that there should be no notepad in the system - without telling staff the reasons.
"The most frequently mentioned irritation with the new system was the lack of notepad, says the report. "It cannot be stressed enough how important this feature is in the eyes of the staff who work for the agency."
Another common complaint about the new system was that it is less flexible than the old one, but staff were not told that this inflexibility was a specified facet of the design. The system is designed on a workflow basis so cases cannot normally progress to a calculation unless the necessary information is entered into defined fields. This is to help ensure correct information is captured and that errors and exceptions are signposted to managers.
The main supplier of the new system, EDS, has conceded in evidence to MPs that the system has not worked as well as it should have, and there are many criticisms of the CS2 system in the report on the CSA.
But the report makes it clear that the reasons for the delayed introduction of the CSA's reforms run deeper than only the technological flaws.
Its authors were told, for example, that the relationships between staff and between staff and managers did not always ensure they were pulling together to overcome problems. The authors were told that in one business unit "everyone hates everyone else in the building. It seems they either blame each other for errors or assume everyone else has an easier job than they do."
And although the CSA's reforms were designed in part to allow staff to discuss cases in depth with clients over the phone rather than by letter, managers noted that some staff did not like talking to clients. "One manager felt that a change of culture in relation to phone usage was needed before any new scheme could be implemented effectively."
Few staff had been trained to handle cases over the phone and some developed ploys to avoid doing so. "It must be noted that the reasons for disliking phone contact are mostly linked to the unpredictability of the call and the emotional drain of dealing with many distressed parents, rather than the computer software," the report says.
Despite all these problems, ministers have continued to focus on problems with the IT and telephony systems as the only relevant causes of the agency's failures.
Last month the Work and Pensions secretary Alan Johnson told MPs, "Despite some recent progress, some significant problems remain with the new computer and telephony systems. These continue to slow progress on business recovery. The department continues to retain substantial payments from EDSÉ"
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