Technology tosh

The government plans to reduce the numbers working at the
Department for Work and Pensions by 30,000 within the next three
years. This amounts to 23 per cent of its staff.

The then secretary of state, Andrew Smith, said when the cuts were
announced: “Major improvements in efficiency will release resources
for front-line services, allowing us to make further progress on
full employment as well as continuing to tackle child and pensioner

This seems on the face of it a very hard task – more progress with
fewer staff. The key to that will obviously lie in part in new
technology. But the government’s record on implementing new
technology in the welfare arena is frankly abysmal. For example,
the Child Support Agency (CSA) is plagued by IT failures to such an
extent that it can’t even assess its own performance, according to
its latest annual report. The CSA reveals that, due to “technical
issues with the information technologyÉ we are unable to
provide information that we are confident is fully accurate for
targets that relate to cases on the new computer system”.

This is an astonishing admission, considering that the new IT
system cost £400m (and rising) and was installed less than two
years ago. The report shows that only 50 per cent of maintenance
payments are being completed on the new system, against an already
mediocre target of 78 per cent. In addition, the number of
telephone calls that are simply abandoned as a result of IT
failures has doubled to 29 per cent, from 14.3 per cent last year.

Qualifying the Child Support Agency’s accounts for the 10th year
running because of high levels of error, the National Audit Office
recently reported that the accuracy of maintenance assessments is
not yet matching performance under the old rules and IT

Doug Smith, the CSA’s chief executive, has at least admitted the
extent of the problems and said that prospects for the next 12
months still look bleak: “We have entered the next business year
with a computer service that does not meet our needs fully,” he
said. Not bad for a £400m investment!

At the same time, the Appeals Service has decided to halt activity
on the IT element of its modernising appeals programme, according
to chief executive, Christina Townsend.

In her foreword to The Appeals Service Annual Report and
Accounts for 2003-4,
she states that: “We felt we needed to
re-examine the direction of the modernising appeals programme. We
decided to halt activity on the IT element of the programme when it
became increasingly clear that it was not providing appropriate
value for money.”

So the Department for Work and Pensions appears to have a tough job
ahead. It is no surprise therefore to hear that it is still keen on
developing “joint teams” with local authority finance staff. The
new teams would do a single financial statement, covering benefit
entitlement and assessments for home care charges. Is it being too
cynical to suggest that this would allow the DWP to maintain home
visits to pensioners by the simple device of getting local
authority staff to do the work of the displaced civil servants?

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council.
He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a
question to be answered please write to him c/o Community

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