Poorly trained, demoralised staff at the Child Support Agency have knowingly entered false information into IT systems, deleted cases for no good reason, and stockpiled claims, not putting them on the systems for years, according to a new report.
It has also emerged that the CSA is likely to delay the transfer hundreds of thousands of cases from old systems to the new rules until next year - although the CS2 system to support the changes was introduced two years ago, in March 2003, at a cost of £456m.
Some staff have revealed that there could be a mass walkout and early retirements if the agency forced through a large-scale migration of cases from the agency's old systems to new rules for calculating payments.
The agency has been struggling to implement reforms, supported by CS2, to simplify calculations of payment of maintenance by "non-resident" parents for their children.
Government ministers have repeatedly claimed that problems at the CSA were mainly due to difficulties with the IT systems. But disclosures in a report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions show that the agency's problems are systemic, not just technological.
The Department for Work and Pensions said research for the report was carried out last year and there have been improvements since. But serious problems remain. Last month Work and Pensions secretary Alan Johnson conceded that the intake of new CSA cases was exceeding the clearance of claims.
The report questioned whether staff had been prepared for the cultural and organisational changes that accompanied reforms to CSA benefit calculations, and whether the data in case records was reliable enough to be transferred.
The report's researchers at Bristol University questioned the agency's staff and managers on their views and experiences of how well the CSA's reforms are working.
They found staff and managers welcomed the reforms. And they said the CS2 technology was improving, although they were strongly critical of aspects of its design, speed and reliability.
But the report revealed details of bad practices and behaviour, driven by pressure from needy clients and tough targets, which were undermining the agency's operations.
Staff in one CSA business unit told the report's authors that they had been instructed to stockpile some claims because "they are easy to process and would look good on their stats when the new system went live".
The ploy went "badly wrong and resulted in the work not being done at all". The report added, "Those cases had been stockpiled since 2002, and we were told they had still not been put on the system."
Some staff bypassed controls on the system. They were "entering false information to fill in unknown details so that they could get the system to continue with the case".
An administrative officer was cited in the report as entering information which the person knew to be false. They were "extremely concerned that by doing so they were breaking the law but was determined to get cases moving and knew of no other workaround that could help".
One focus group said that when staff were unable to send cases to the right office "they simply deleted them" not knowing whether or not they were duplicated in the appropriate business unit.
The report also found there were poor internal communications. Staff were discouraged from criticising, and "information was filtered" as it passed between higher levels of staff. Above a certain managerial level some executives were "painting roses red".
The reforms require staff to deal with clients on the phone. New computer-based telephony systems were installed which were designed to direct callers automatically to the right member of staff.
But staff were not trained in having conversations with distressed parents, and some developed ploys to avoid using the phone. They directed callers to answer machines, or turned down the sound of the phone ringing
IT staff have told Computer Weekly that many of the problems at the agency are because of systemic weaknesses. They said senior managers had enacted reforms as mainly an IT project instead of an exercise in managing change and re-engineering business processes.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said, "This report is based on research carried out in early 2004. Since then the service to clients has progressively improved following action taken by the agency to improve levels of customer service and to support our staff.
"The agency very much values its staff, who work in difficult circumstances involving emotional family break-ups. That said, there is still some way to go before the agency is delivering for all its clients the level of service they are entitled to expect."
Work and Pensions secretary Alan Johnson said last month, "An agency business transformation programme is being developed which will contain short-term tactical initiatives and also places significant emphasis on ensuring medium to long-term sustained recovery."