The £200m IT system commissioned for the Child Support Agency (CSA) from Texas outsourcing firm EDS is more than just another troubled government IT project. It could become a textbook example of how poor communications between user and supplier can compromise a major deal.
Martin Sexton, director of IT at systems integration specialist London Market Systems, believes that while the Government and the supplier have blamed one another for delays that may put the project £50m over budget, both parties share responsibility for the late delivery.
"The customer should have asked the right questions of the supplier, which itself should have been more forthcoming with available options, such as making the system more configurable and able to handle change," Sexton said. He maintains that breaking projects down into more manageable chunks and prioritising deliverables would reduce the level of risk involved in an undertaking of this scale.
The case hit the headlines last week when the Government found itself unable to deny BBC reports that the CSA's new computer system is £50m over budget and likely to be delayed until next year, more than a year beyond its original implementation date of April 2002.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for the CSA, would only confirm that the system is undergoing "rigorous testing" by EDS - suggesting it is not yet ready. He was unable to say when the system, which is being developed under the private finance initiative (PFI), will be delivered or how much the delayed introduction will cost the public purse.
However, in a rare move EDS later appeared to lay the blame for the over-run at the Government's door. A statement from the company confirmed that the system, although undergoing testing, is already complete.
It went on to suggest that the goalposts had moved. "The system is highly complex and more sophisticated than originally anticipated due to a change in government requirements," the statement said.
It also claimed that the "go live" date when new cases can be input into the system is a ministerial decision, which will be based on the Government's reform agenda, not just on technical performance. "This is separate from the delivery of the IT systems and is dependent on a number of readiness factors," it said.
There appears to be confusion about who is responsible for the delay, with the Government refusing to comment on the statement from EDS, which also runs contracts for the Inland Revenue and is supplying the new NHS e-mail system. In turn, EDS is forwarding all enquiries to the CSA.
The Government's planned reforms of the CSA, under the terms of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, will provide simple maintenance calculations based on 15% of a parent's income for one child, 20% for two children and 25% for three children. But implementation of the reforms is dependent on completion of the IT system to support it.
Questions have also been raised about the impact that the delays will have on those most affected by the work of the CSA.
Garry Deakin, a father-of-two who contacted Computer Weekly, estimated that the delays in implementing the new system could cost him £3,000 in payments that he would not have had to make if the system had gone live on time and his maintenance payments had been recalculated according to the new formulae. "And there must be others in my situation," he said.
The delay in introducing the CSA's new system raises more questions about whether PFI is an appropriate method of funding major government IT projects, although some experts argue that the funding structure itself is not to blame.
Roger Barber, senior consultant at consultancy Morgan Chambers, said the problems encountered by the CSA are typical of many major public sector IT projects. "PFI is not at the core of any issues which may be developing with the CSA. It is more to do with the innate and complex nature of meeting the demands of a government contract in terms of trying to stabilise the requirement against evolving government legislation and policies," he said.
Barber urged the Government to consider the impact on IT systems when planning new policies, and involve suppliers as early as possible.
"The Government needs to engage the suppliers earlier in the process," he said.