Neck ties, safety screens and sex toys have all dogged the government's initiative to help people look for jobs while they are claiming benefits. But it is the computer system that is supposed to support the scheme that is proving the greatest obstacle to improving efficiency and helping the public, according to a report* published last month.
At the heart of this failure are the old demons of IT disaster: poor engagement with end-users, inadequate training and lack of attention to business process change. The result is that staff, who broadly welcome the introduction of new technology in the workplace, distrust the systems they have to use.
Tony Blair launched the Jobcentre Plus scheme in the run-up to the 2001 general election. He said the aim was, "To bring together in a single modern organisation the services currently provided to those of working age by the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency."
Since then, staff have walked out on strike over the removal of security screens, sex toy retailer Ann Summers had its job adverts banned, and an employee won a sex discrimination case over being made to wear a tie.
But until the Department for Work and Pensions published an independent report into alternative service delivery channels at Jobcentre Plus, problems with the IT systems were largely hidden.
Jobcentre Plus staff believe the IT systems, in particular the Customer Management System (CMS), lead to inefficiencies in staffing, resources and the claims process.
CMS was built by IBM and is operated by EDS. It is a client server system deployed on the DWP's Windows 2000/XP common office infrastructure. Jobcentre Plus is in the middle of upgrading CMS to CMS2, although this has also hit problems.
A report by researchers at Warwick University, Northumbria University and market research company NOP, commissioned by the DWP, shows that Jobcentre Plus staff distrust the management of all technology projects because of the history of IT failure they have suffered.
This view was summed up by a Jobcentre Plus business manager quoted in the report: "I think people have lost a lot of faith in the IT systems we have got because they have not delivered in the past... it would be wonderful if we could go in in the morning and just log on to one systemÉ and not half a dozen."
The CMS is used by Jobcentre Plus staff to gather information needed for new and repeat claims for income support, jobseekers' allowance and incapacity benefits. A range of other benefits, including those relating to disability, are not supported by the system.
Researchers found that problems with the system's reliability "seemed to resonate throughout the focus group sessions".
"Staff, in particular those that interact and liaise regularly with contact centres, feel that the introduction of CMS and its utility in current form has led to greater inefficiencies in staffing, resources and the claims process," said the report.
It highlighted poor training and a failure to listen to staff concerns, as well as systems so inflexible that staff knowingly entered false information in a bid to progress casework.
Among Jobcentre Plus staff there were complaints of poorly designed on-screen forms used in CMS, lack of customer service skills and insufficient knowledge among staff in contact centres, and a poor level of staff training.
The report found that some managers thought the introduction of contact centres was a positive move that could cut queues in Jobcentres. But overall the perception was negative.
"There is a clear lack of confidence caused by the difference between what the technology is supposed to be able to do in principle, and what has been delivered in practice, with the result that most staff are, 'dreading the introduction of CMS 2'."
According to the report, one member of staff said, "We should be encouraged by the introduction of new technology and systems... yet the more it goes on the more discouraged we become."
Exacerbating the technical shortcomings of CMS was poor attention to business processes and inferior training in customer contact centres.
"There is a consensus of opinion that the transformation to alternative channels has been rushed through too quickly - with business processes not being followed correctly and adequately - thus creating inefficiency rather than efficiency."
In addition, staff feel their input was ignored when CMS was built. Staff also felt that, "Mistakes and problems highlighted in pilots are ignored by senior management, and that rolling out new technologies and channels to more offices, without rectifying basic procedural and process errors, will lead to greater problems and more inefficiency," the report said.
These shortcomings are reflected in what employees would like to see happen in order to rectify problems with IT and alternative channels. They would like greater involvement and consultation of frontline staff in decisions concerning the implement- ation of technology and systems to deliver services through alternative channels.
The DWP said it would use the report's findings to meet the needs of staff and customers to ensure best value for taxpayers. "We are working with staff to address any concerns raised in the report," it said.
* The use and development of alternative service delivery channels in Jobcentre Plus: a review of recent evidence, Department for Work and Pensions Research report no. 280
Staff spell out what is wrong with Jobcentre systems
The staff perception is that service delivery has been ad hoc rather than joined-up. The report identified the following issues as problematic for staff:
- The systems implemented are not interfacing or interacting - they do not talk to each other
- The technology is cheap and inadequate. Customer Management System functionality is limited and unstable, and staff had no confidence the updated CMS2 would resolve problems identified with the current system
- Feedback from staff is ignored with the result that one bad system after another is implemented
- Distrust of technology (CMS and now CMS2)
- Staff do not have any confidence in CMS and what it is delivering. This has an overtly negative impact on attitudes to contact centres and what they are supposed to be to achieving
- The lack of reliability of CMS
- The CMS/contact centre pro forma is badly designed
- Poor staff training within contact centres
- The inflexibility of the "scripted" approach in contact centres.