Weblog archive for August 2003

Happy birthday to this website! 1st August 2003
Child Support Analysis birthday cake

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you!

This website started as a portal with links to many sources worldwide about child support, and a repository for original analysis and for proposals.

During 2001 and 2002, the plan was to have a revised edition at the start of each month. But sometimes there was breaking news during the month. Sometimes there were small items which didn't fit into the main pages. Sometimes there wasn't enough time at the end of a month.

So during 2003 it has also been a weblog (or "blog"). Items are added when they are available. They may be stand-alone items, or a summary & links to new stuff in the repository. All blog items are in monthly archives, and those of the last few weeks are also shown on the home page.

Clipart by Bobbie Peachey

Treasury discredits use of PFI for IT projects - but are they right? 1st August 2003

Projects completed by the largest American companies have only approximately 42 per cent of the originally proposed features and functions.
The Chaos Report
The Standish Group, 1995.

PFI (Private Finance Initiative) is a scheme where a supplier in the private sector pays for some infrastructure and/or organisation, then the government pays for the use of its services. So the supplier may construct and operate a prison or school or road, and the government pays the supplier an agreed price. If the supplier cocks it up, the supplier should be the one that loses out, rather than the government or taxpayers.

This has been in the news a lot over the last couple of weeks. The Treasury has concluded that this works in various cases, but not for IT projects. An example they quote, of course, is the CSA's computer system. There are also many other government computer systems that have gone badly wrong.

I won't repeat all the arguments already published. See the Treasury's report, or the news articles below. Instead, here are some other discussion topics:

Do commercial organisations handle IT projects well for themselves?

No! The Treasury report quotes the Standish Group's 1995 "The Chaos Report". The Standish Group’s report on IT projects from the United States suggested that only 16 per cent of software projects are completed on time and on budget throughout IT procurement. The report went further, stating that "even when these projects are completed, many are no more than a mere shadow of their original specification requirements. Projects completed by the largest American companies have only approximately 42 per cent of the originally proposed features and functions".

Do government agencies handle IT projects well for themselves?

No! Why should governments handle IT any better than commercial organisations? Government agencies typically have to handle databases catering for a significant proportion of citizens. For example, the CSA caters for about 1 million mothers, 1 million fathers, and 1.5 million children. That makes it a large system compared with many commercial systems. The Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Accounts published a report on 5th January 2000 "Improving the Delivery of Government IT Projects". It had an important Annex describing "projects examined" and "lessons learned". It examined 25 government systems that had shown problems!

Do government IT projects have special problems that commercial systems don't have?

Gosh, yes! They may always be worse than commercial systems!

- See above - they are often very large. Few commercial systems have to cater for several millions of people, while that is typical of government systems.
- There are EU restrictions on the bidding and acceptance process for government IT systems. To avoid preferential treatment to home-suppliers, the government's hands are tied. See weblog items for 8th July.
- Government contracts tend to involve upfront details (for obvious reasons!) They probably have a detailed specification and detailed costing. But that is not necessarily the best way of developing computer systems. (I suggest that it is rarely the best way). A different approach is identified by RADS (Rapid Application Development System). This has the designers & developers & users working together to produce the system. And they don't know in advance what it will look like.
- Government IT is scrutinised and tends to make managers risk-averse. Even being risk-averse doesn't stop problems occurring. But it will often stop the best solution being delivered. So instead of heading towards the best solution (which may fail), it heads towards a plodding, boring, solution (which may fail).
- The government agency is likely to be a monopoly. So if the IT project fails, there is simply no alternative. Millions of citizens have lost out for ever. If the government agency can't deliver their passport - they stay in the UK! If the government agency can't transfer their child support - the child is brought up poor! The government may find ways to justify it, or even apologise (?), but for the people concerned, the chance has gone.

So are we all doomed?

There is no magical solution to delivering large-scale computer systems reliably, on-time, and on-budget. None! But the way government agencies try to handle their IT projects sometimes appears to head towards the worst possible state! It is a bit like watching a car-crash in slow motion. You know it is going to be a disaster, but you just watch in fascination.

So what do we do?

Here are some thoughts. They are not a prescription that will inevitably result in a solution!

- Think small. Big projects typically fail or have major problems. Small projects tend to have a better track record.
- Think incremental. The first stage will show that your thinking for the complete solution was wrong. So after the first stage, you will have a clearer idea of what you really need.
- Think competition. This concentrates the mind. But, far more important, it provides somewhere to go for the people trapped by the failed or stalled solution! If the government fails to deliver your passport, you should be able to get one from a commercial competitor. If the government fails to deliver your child support, you should be able to use a commercial competitor to obtain it.
- Think process outsourcing. It is probably hopeless to try to specify in advance the interface between the CSA staff and their computer system. It is incredibly complicated, and ministers will inevitably keep meddling in the detail and changing the rules. Why not have a PFI project called "manage child support"? The interface is much simpler: "here is the formula, here is the child, now make it happen". The interface between the staff and the computer system (if any!) is now internal to the supplier.
- Think avoid government interference. The CSA has the form it does partly because of the Treasury's involvement and constraints. But has this honestly benefited the UK's fiscal state? It is likely that micro-management has resulted in macro-degradation.

News articles:
Tenders Direct, IT's all over now
Ananova, PFI scrapped for IT projects after series of failures
The Guardian, Charlotte Denny, Government abandons PFI for computer projects

Don't be a relative of a non-resident parent in Georgia! 4th August 2003

When it is impossible to receive support from a parent, the Marital and Family Code obliges the closest relatives (brothers, sisters, grandfather, grandmother) to maintain the child.
Georgia report to UN, 1997

At the request of an agency in a "less industrialised country", I've been looking at how such countries handle child support / maintenance. This quote on the right is from Georgia (ex-USSR). To be fair, it applies to all relatives of the qualifying child, not just those on the NRP's side.

"Under Georgian legislation children are supported by the parents. Parents are obliged to maintain their under-age as well as disabled adult children who are in need of assistance. In case of separation or divorce a court determines the support of a child and thereby clarifies the status of a parent. An amount of maintenance is determined in accordance with the child's needs and the parent's earnings. According to article 72 of the Marital and Family Code a parent pays alimony in the following sums: to maintain one child - one quarter of the salary (income); to maintain two children - one third; in case of three or more children - half".

Ah - the well known 25% / 33% / 50% formula! Gosh. (Is that net or gross?)

Are CSA staff told to cover-up computer problems? 5th August 2003

... if a case vanishes from the computer, the parent should not be informed.... Staff are told "not to blame ministers or the Government".
Sarah Womack, Telegraph

An article in The Telegraph (and a smaller version in the Evening Standard) quotes a couple of leaked documents from the CSA:

A list of "do's and don'ts" ... says that if a case vanishes from the computer, the parent should not be informed. If a parent whose case has "disappeared" asks if this is the situation, staff are told to reply: "I am unable to access your case at present but will contact you in XXX days to address your inquiry."

In a memo "restricted [to] management", a senior executive says staff have "fallen into the trap" of associating a letter of apology with a "consolatory payment". "Consolation" payments should only be made when there is "gross inconvenience caused by persistent error, or gross embarrassment, or severe stress which has significantly impacted on a customer's physical or mental health".

About the CSA staff:
A number of them lack some basic life skills which permit them to deal with the sort of cases we are doing optimally without significant investment of training which is difficult to live with.... the staff profile is not ideal for dealing with the profile of the cases we are handling ... therefore we have a heavier reliance on our systems being right.
Doug Smith, CEO of the CSA

Is this a sinister cover-up? It may be an attempt to prevent the full extent of the computer problems from being revealed, but that is not really the point. Various problems with the CSA's new computer system have already been published by the media and by the Parliamentary Committee. There are various items in the July weblog here. This latest news is a distraction from the fundamental issue.

The CSA has published its "aims, values and mission". They include "understand and respond to the needs of our clients and listen to their concerns", "deliver an efficient, professional and sensitive service often at an emotionally difficult time in our clients’ lives" and "treat our clients and each other with respect". Yet the CSA does not have the necessary combination of staff experience and training, and the tools for the job, to achieve these worthy aims.

It could be argued that CSA staff need more skills and experience than those of other key government departments. They have to deal with 2 "clients" (often antagonistic) at a time, unlike other agencies. But the CSA doesn't (primarily) collect money for the government, nor provide a service of unambiguous value to voters. It is government interference in what should ideally be a civil matter. It appears to be a trend across the world to treat child support as less important than other concerns. Few schemes work well.

The Telegraph, Sarah Womack, CSA orders staff to cover up computer chaos
Evening Standard, Chris Millar, CSA staff told to 'hide' chaos
KableNET, CSA fights IT chaos

Has "Man Not Included" resulted in the birth of children with abused rights? 21st August 2003

... the site offered the chance of motherhood to lesbian and single women who might be turned down for treatment at traditional clinics.
John Gonzalez, founder of the website

The first child has been born to people using the "Man Not Included" unofficial anonymous sperm donation service. It will probably never know its father, however much it wants to later in life.

The United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the UK's Human Rights system all increasingly recognise that children should be able to identify their biological parents. The UN and various courts criticise countries that don't do enough to enable children to find out. See Blog entries for 9th and 11th of July.

The critics of "Man Not Included" typically mention health risks to the children, and even eugenics. They (rightly) point out that the father cannot legally be protected from having to pay child support. (Only anonymity can protect him). But they don't appear to think it through from the child's point of view. Neither does "Man Not Included".

On 1st July I emailed them to ask about these problems. They have not answered my questions. I suspect they don't want to think about these issues, because they would then have to cease their service. But this is an issue that won't go away.

The Independent, Maxine Frith, First baby born from sperm bought over the internet
The Guardian, Sarah Boseley, Birth of first Internet sperm bank baby

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