MPs slam government's response to IT fiasco

MPs investigating failures of the IT systems at the Department of Work and Pension’s Child Support Agency have slammed a...

MPs investigating failures of the IT systems at the Department of Work and Pension’s Child Support Agency have slammed a government response to their highly critical report, which was published in July. The MPs said the response failed "to address the spirit and letter of many of the committee’s recommendations".

Expressing his frustration, Commons work and pensions select committee chairman, Sir Archy Kirkwood, said, "We will not let the matter rest here."

MPs on the work and pensions subcommittee launched their inquiry in November 2003 after continuing complaints from MPs and the public about an IT-based reform of the CSA.

When the system supplied by EDS went live in 2003, it was two years late and caused difficulties for staff: some screens went blank and cases could not be progressed.

The committee's report drew on the CSA experience into why many IT projects in the public sector fail, waste large sums of taxpayers’ money and cause distress to thousands of clients.

The report made more than 30 specific recommendations and a central theme of its findings was that accountability and transparency were essential to boost the success of government IT projects.

In response the government said it accepted the need for transparency but rejected two of the committee’s major calls - for publication of Gateway reviews, which measure project progress, and to investigate legislating for best practice. These are two of the main planks of Computer Weekly’s Shaking UP Government IT campaign.

Commenting on the government's response to calls for openness, the committee said, "While the government has agreed to put more contract information into the public domain, the committee is profoundly dissatisfied with its response on recommendations such as publishing business cases, Gateway reviews and implementation assessments for IT projects.

"The amount of information made available to Parliament should not be limited to that which the government will be legally obliged to provide under the Freedom of Information Act."

The MPs said, "Commercial confidentiality is being used to prevent Parliament from gaining access to key information about IT projects. The committee reaffirms its recommendation that Parliament requires much more information before, during and after implementation, if it is to scrutinise IT projects effectively."

The government has also failed to adequately respond to other specific recommendations relating to IT systems at the CSA, the committee said. Calls for the government to set out its contingency plans, including possible abandonment of the new child support system, called CS2, if it is not fully operational by 1 December, were not answered, according to the committee.

However, in one concession, the government said it would review and evaluate all aspects of the CSA IT system, although the committee said the government’s "response fails to commit to any details and does not indicate whether the full review would be published".

Commenting on the government’s response, Kirkwood said, "Overall, we are very dissatisfied with the government’s response. The government’s record on IT projects needs to get better. The committee sets out an overwhelming case why Parliament and the public require more detailed information about IT projects, including the business case.

"Instead of addressing the committee’s concern, the department defends its secretive approach on grounds of commercial confidentiality and says that it will make information available in the context of the Freedom of Information Act. This isn’t good enough.

"We will not let the matter rest here. The committee will continue to press the department, and will keep open its options for an independent review of projects," Kirkwood said.

Child Support Agency IT failures

MPs on the Department for Work and Pensions subcommittee launched their inquiry in November 2003 after continuing complaints from MPs and the public about an IT-based reform of the Child Support Agency (CSA).

The aim of CS2, a new system supplied by US-based services giant EDS, was to support simplified rules for calculating the payments made or received by non-resident parents for their children.

The old system, also supplied by EDS, did little more than calculate payments. Information between the agency and the parents was exchanged mainly by letter. The new system required a major culture change: it allowed staff to answer queries and deal with claims by phone.

When the system went live in March 2003, it was two years late and caused difficulties for staff: some screens went blank and cases could not be progressed.

Hundreds of thousands of parents are still waiting for their cases to be moved from the old to the new, simplified system. Many of them are paying more than they need to because their cases cannot be transferred.

For more on the Computer Weekly Shaking Up Government IT campaign, click here >>

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