The Treasury’s Office of Government Commerce secretly gave a green light to going live with IT systems that supported reforms of the Child Support Agency, although there were known critical defects, which later hit staff productivity.
This is one of the disclosures in a report of public spending watchdog the National Audit Office which supports ministerial statements that the agency is not fit for purpose. Its work is expected to be run down gradually.
Today, three years after the systems went live, there are 600 manual “workarounds”. But the report put the blame for the system failings on the agency as well as EDS, the Child Support Agency’s main IT supplier.
It said there was a lack of clarity in what was wanted from the IT, and staff did not always comply with rules which governed the use of the technology. Even before contracts with EDS were signed in 2000 the agency knew that the high risks of the IT plan were compounded by trying to reform an agency that was “under-achieving and stretched”, it said.
The IT-related project was judged to be so high risk in 2000 that PA Consulting warned, in a report commissioned by Whitehall, that no risk mitigation strategy would be sufficient to guarantee success.
Despite this there was unrealistic optimism, said the report. Before systems went live in March 2003, the IT-related reform programme had been subject to 40 internal audits, 70% of which rang alarm bells. Parliament was left uninformed of the dangers highlighted by the audits, and none was published.
In February 2003 the agency asked the Office of Government Commerce to do a “healthcheck”.
It was known then that the system would go live with 52 critical defects, 14 of which had no clear fixes, or where mitigation plans were unsatisfactory.
But the review team “accepted that other drivers to the programme needed to be brought into account such as the risk of demotivating the agency’s client teams, the risk of loss of momentum of the programme”, and the significant cost of delay.
The conclusion of the healthcheck was, “Despite the increased risk, the March date was acceptable and assessed the programme as being at status green.”
The impact of defects soon became clear. “Staff had to spend large amounts of their time navigating cases around known defects in order to prevent the system from causing the case to delay or get stuck. A large number of these manual workarounds still remain,” the National Audit Office report said.
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