Weblog archive for September 2004

3rd September 2004

News article reveals the pressure on CSA and EDS

This doesn't really say anything new, but puts the problems into context.

It begins: "A welfare case management and telephony system worth some $806.5 million is in danger of being unplugged if the agency overseeing it cannot fix technical and procedural processes in the next several months". It continues:

We are not saying the system should be abandoned come December. What we are saying is the government should draw a line in the sand if DWP cannot come up with a guarantee. 

Rob Marris, member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee

"The complaints about the CSA system include missed implementation deadlines, an inability to migrate existing cases to the new system, a telephony system that provides an "appalling level of service" and a backlog of 170,000 cases that grows by 30,000 each quarter. Additionally, the two systems haven't worked well together, "with customers' calls being routed to the wrong place and cases disappearing from the caseworker's screen as staff try to answer a telephone inquiry." The committee recommended that if the telephony system isn't fully functional by May, it should be abandoned and replaced. The committee also said that if the CSA application isn't fully operational to process new cases by Dec. 1 -- and if the agency can't guarantee the ability to migrate existing cases by May 2005 -- then a contingency plan should be readied."

A source close to the implementation said that most of the problems now are more cultural than technical.

12th September 2004

Another protest by an excluded father

This is a campaign that is unlikely to go away until it has had results!

It's not an official protest but it's part of the ongoing campaign, it is somebody who is affiliated with the organisation. It's someone who has not seen their daughter for about a year. 

A spokesman for Fathers 4 Justice

This time the London Eye was brought to a stop. A Fathers 4 Justice campaigner has been arrested after spending about 18 hours on top of the London Eye, forcing the attraction to shut down.

"It is believed Mr Chick has not seen his four-year-old daughter for 12 months after his former partner refused him access".

13th September 2004

CSA web site passes test - the only government site to do so!

As this Blog reported on 15th September 2003 and 17th January 2004, the CSA web site has been upgraded with the specific intention of being accessible to people with disabilities. It is now revealed that the CSA web site is the only web site of UK government agencies that passes all the tests needed for an accessible web site!

I think that automation has its place, but I don't believe that it is always the answer. It may be a guide and I can understand why people use automation, but as it is a real person who uses a system I think that automation can give skewed or often pedantic results. We are being measured by SiteMorse™, which I resent because I don't believe that it is the fountain of all knowledge. I personally don't see any benefits and things aren't so, just because they say so. 

Peter Barton (of Lincolnshire County Council)

If local and national government websites stray from recognised standards, there is an increased risk that citizens will be denied access to services. It is always tempting to assume that our customers use the same web browsers on the same platforms and have the same accessibility requirements as our in-house users. In reality this is far from the case, and by complying with standards we greatly improve our chances of providing the best services to the widest audience. 

Steve Rigden, Web Manager, Thurrock Council

Congratulations to those concerned. (For interest, the CSA web site is not developed by CSA staff, nor by EDS staff. It is developed by staff of the Department for Work and Pensions, DWP).

"At the bottom of the league table this month is the Government News Network, while a debilitating 620 website function errors were found on consumer.gov.uk. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (culture.gov.uk) had the highest number of warnings, 20,000 in total, and thus failed to meet the W3C's HTML standards for website compliance. Meanwhile, 32 sites achieved a score of 90% relating to accessibility compliance (measured against the current Web Accessibility Initiatives – WAI - standards), and only 19 met this completely. Two sites were down during this month's tests: e-venturing.gov.uk and hmce.gov.uk.

"Once again the CSA was the only public body to achieve 100% compliance with regards to the eGMS standards, with only one other managing to achieve a percentage score of 90%, while 83% of the other sites tested failed miserably to comply. In the download speed stakes the worst offender was the Department for Transport, which was 178 times slower than the walesoffice.gov.uk."

The CSA web site development team uses SiteMorse(TM) as part of their accessibility process. Some of those criticised in the latest report don't agree with the sort of tests used by SiteMorse. There is a danger that the human factor will get overlooked in automated testing.

However, when used as part of a range of tests, automated testing has its place. I personally use a range of on-line services to check various aspects of web sites (including this one), including SiteMorse. I don't accept what it says blindly. For example, it failed one of my web sites because of excessive download time for key pages. (It gave some obviously erroneous results in its report, for example stating that the access time was the same for a slow modem as for broadband!) But that site has a high photograph content, optionally including some very large photographs. The text of the pages downloads much faster, and can be read while the photographs are being received. And a blind person won't bother downloading these photographs! It remains important to keep your brain switched on!

14th September 2004

Protest number 423 out of (how many?) by excluded father

A few days ago it was the London Eye. Now it is Buckingham Palace! One man was arrested. 115 online news sources reported it. (According to Google News). Many newspapers and other news sources also reported. They will report it again if/when it goes to court.

Research and surveys have shown what we all know anyway. Activism attracts attention and eventually forces government action, while becoming "part of the system" allows government to ignore you. My own natural preference is to work within the system, but my experience has shown how futile this can be when faced with people who simply want the fuss to "go away" without real change on their part.

At the moment, these campaigners have a good formula. Their activities don't harm their children, innocent parties, or even the other parents. They "simply" cause lots of publicity and make government and other authorities appear to be a bit silly and helpless. Officials say predictable and rather pathetic things like "the breach of security is unacceptable". Gosh!

15th September 2004

"The CSA is a disgrace that cannot be kept secret"

That is the title of an article in today's Times. Few people with knowledge of the CSA would disagree. The article is essential reading for those in doubt. Here are some quotes from it.

"Parliament rarely finds time to debate the CSA at all. The agency has become unmentionable. The annual report into the Government's drive to tackle poverty, published as a shiny magazine by the Department for Work and Pensions on Monday, mentioned the CSA a whole two times. In 238 pages. Twice. And one of them was in brackets. "Children need the best possible start in life so they can flourish," gushed the report....

"Back in the Commons, Margaret Hodge was gushing, too. The minister for children was "delighted" to be presenting the Children Bill".... Does the Bill mention the CSA? No. Did Mrs Hodge, on her feet for 52 minutes, mention the CSA? Nope. Has the minister for children ever talked about the CSA? Not that her department could recall. Nobody talks about the CSA because it is a catastrophe. And it is a catastrophe that directly affects the poorest people in the country, lone parents. According to its annual report, the CSA owes a massive £976 million to these people; well over twice the amount that the agency actually paid out to parents with care last year.

"The CSA is hopeless. A quarter of parents, nearly always mothers, who apply for maintenance receive none at all, while another 20 per cent get less than they are entitled to. And these are not huge amounts: the average per child is £16 a week, a small payment which might make an enormous difference.

"As well as the £976 million that the CSA has calculated is owed and believes it can recover from absent parents, there is a further £1 billion that it writes off as unrecoverable. Were the Inland Revenue to be owed £2 billion it would damn well go and get it. But because this is owed to the poorest people in the country, nobody does a thing about it.

"If the CSA is failing the vulnerable, it is also doing it very expensively. Its operating costs are an astonishing 54p per £1 collected. The Inland Revenue's, by contrast, are 1.11p per £1....

"The agency may not be able to work out how many parents need help, but it does know that 2.5 per cent of its workforce are registered disabled. It ran a "substantial disability awareness programme" last year. Very useful. Over half of office waste was recycled, and "all of our major sites have developed a green travel plan". Goodo.

"Staff may not have answered calls, but they did sit as school governors, brought their children to work, and helped out in the magistrate service and with the Prince's Trust. They also took an average of 15.6 days off sick. One in seven resigned."

20th September 2004

CSA statistics for May 2004 released (incomplete)

From the 3rd March 2003, all new Child Support applications have been assessed under a new scheme. These cases are stored on a new computer system. In addition, approximately 144" [actually, 201!] "thousand old scheme cases are also administered on the new computer system. Technical issues continue to prevent reliable figures on compliance, throughput and other more detailed statistics from this new system. The Department continues to retain around 15% of each monthly payment due to EDS, the service provider, due to the continuing problems with the computer and telephony systems. The Agency are working together with EDS to come to a commonly understood view over the accuracy of figures from the new system. 

Department for Work and Pensions

These statistics continue the trend reported in this Blog in June.

The new scheme is still a shambles. But, since the new computer system can't provide reliable numbers for various aspects, it isn't clear just how much of a shambles it is. (It is covering up its own failings!)

The total number of cases on the old computer system continues to fall. Some have been transferred to the new computer system, but apart from the number, there are no details available.

While there are plenty of statistics from the old computer system, such as ages, amounts, etc, there are no such numbers available from the new computer system. Note that the "work in progress", or backlog, continues to rise quarter by quarter. Note also that number of NRPs who have made at least 1 payment of regular maintenance rises much slower than the total number of applications or the total number of calculations. Yet the new scheme was supposed to increase the proportion of compliant cases!

New Scheme applications, in 1000s
  By end May 03 By end Aug 03 By end Nov 03 By end Feb 04 By end May 04
Total applications 48.6 126.2 217.1 290.5 378.0
Total calculations 2.5 20.8 52.3 79.8 107.4
Total closed/withdrawn 2.6 14.3 34.8 53.6 73.6
Work in progress 43.5 91.1 130 157.1 197.0
No. of NRPs who have made at least 1 payment of regular maintenance 0.1 3.3 13.1 25.6 41.0

 

Numbers of Old Scheme live cases, 1000s
  May 00 May 01 May 02 May 03 May 04
Live cases on old computer system 1040.0 1032.8 1071.8 948.0 724.4
Cases transferred to new computer system         201
Total 1040.0 1032.8 1071.8 948.0 925.4

24th September 2004

Some evidence to Parliament about the performance of the CSA

The Work and Pensions Select Committee is taking evidence about the performance of the CSA. It recently published "uncorrected evidence" from three people. (When you give evidence to a committee, as I did, with FNF, in 1999, you get a limited opportunity to correct errors in the transcript before the final version is published. This is the version before such correction).

Here are just a few sentences from each of the witnesses giving evidence:

"When the new scheme first came into operation there was an expectation, because of the simplicity of the legislation, that there would be very little need for people to complain and that those people who did complain would be complaining because they either wanted to move onto it more quickly or were upset that they had moved onto it so quickly. That has not been my experience. I mention that because I now come on to say that there were very clear problems with the system, CS2, and members will be aware of some of those problems. I think that came as a surprise to everybody. There was then a period in the early stages when the Agency was trying to find ways of making sure that it was able to progress cases quickly. That meant a movement of staff and sometimes staff who were very experienced on old scheme work were moved to help with new scheme work and that created a situation of difficulty and uncertainty in old scheme cases as well. That movement of staff may have happened anyway, but it has been the result of it. For that reason, the old scheme cases, where people were actually starting to get to grips with how they could sort out problems, were affected by the implementation of the reforms in that kind of way."
Ms Jodi Berg, The Independent Case Examiner for the Child Support Agency

"The essence for me is that the primary reason for the complaints coming to us is that the Agency has missed the opportunities that it has to take action and to achieve compliance and to achieve enforcement. That is the basis of our complaints and the reason why we uphold so many, a large proportion, 86 per cent of them. They have the power there, the tools; they do not necessarily use them to good effect in the cases which come to us."
Mr Phil Latus, Case Director, Office of the Independent Case Examiner for the CSA

"One of the features of the UK system is that ours is still very much a social security driven system. Contrast that with the States and to a lesser extent Australia, their child support agencies are about the transfer of money from private households to private households.... What can be shown is that both the American and the Australian systems are the more successful in getting people to pay, even if not entirely happy about paying. The Australian system appears to be more successful than ours, so far as we can judge from statistics, but the Australians' own research shows that their agency is still deeply unpopular, both with NRPs and with PWCs"
Professor Nick Wikeley, Professor of the Law at the University of Southampton

There will be more here as more evidence is taken and the report is published.

25th September 2004

Annual report & accounts of CSA, plus annual report of CSA Standards Committee, published

Both of these documents have been published for 2003/4.

Unit Costs: The shadow target for 2003-04 was defined as staff cost per active case and was set at £184. Due to delays in the implementation of Child Support Reform, costs were higher than expected and the actual performance was a staff cost of £189 per active case. 

Annual Report and Accounts

Old scheme telephone calls abandoned:
Target: 20%
2002-3: 14.3%
2003-4: 29%. 

Annual Report and Accounts

Last year staff morale was badly affected by the disappointment of not being able to move as effectively as planned in implementing Child Support Reform. This concern and disquiet was reflected in the staff attitude survey. 

Annual Report and Accounts

In addition to the £18.57 million deemed probably uncollectible for 2003-04, a further £990.64 million relating to prior years, including £12.55 million for 2002-03, has been classified as probably uncollectible and is therefore not included in the balance of £255.73 million due at 31 March 2004. 

Annual Report and Accounts

Last decision accuracy:
old rules: 85.6%
new rules: 81.8%. 

Annual Report and Accounts

From the Annual Report and Accounts:

"2003-04 was in any terms a difficult year for the Agency. It followed immediately on the introduction of the new child support arrangements for new clients. At its start we had high hopes that we would be able to move reasonably quickly to convert existing cases to the new arrangements. In the event that did not prove possible. The computer service provided by EDS proved less reliable and contained significantly more defects than expected. Remedying these proved more complex and time consuming than was expected. As a result we have entered the next business year with a computer service that still does not meet our needs fully.... Many new clients are now receiving a better service than we have provided hitherto and we have maintained our service levels for most existing clients. That can be attributed to the commitment 'above and beyond' of our staff to provide the best possible service to clients, despite constraints imposed on them by the computer service. But we have not always been successful and for that I apologise....

"Many existing clients are anxious to move quickly to the new arrangements. Difficulties with the computer service will mean an inevitable delay in this. I am working with EDS to minimise that. Ministers have always said that they need to be confident that the new arrangements are working well for new clients before adopting them for existing clients."
Doug Smith, Chief Executive (in the Annual Report and Accounts)

"As explained in paragraph 4 and 1.14 to 1.16 of my report, my audit found that certain receipts from non-resident parents (and the subsequent payment over to the parent with care or Secretary of State) were for wrong amounts mainly because of errors in the underlying maintenance assessments. I estimate that receipts from non-resident parents included in the Client Funds Account as £601.3 million are misstated due to overpayments amounting to £10.6 million and underpayments amounting to £15.3 million. Also, as explained in paragraphs 5 and 1.10 to 1.13 of my report, my audit found that amounts due at 31 March 2004 from non-resident parents in respect of maintenance assessments were misstated mainly because of combinations of errors made in 2003-04 and earlier years. I estimate that the balance outstanding in respect of full maintenance assessments, shown in note 6 as £720.1 million, includes overstatements of £161.1 million and understatements of £99.5 million. I also estimate that the balance outstanding in respect of interim maintenance assessments shown in note 7 as £255.7 million includes overstatements of £8.6 million and understatements of £5.0 million."
John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor General, National Audit Office (in the Annual Report and Accounts)

From the Annual Report of the Standards Committee:

"Conclusions
The Standards Committee recognises that this has been a very challenging year for the Agency and that recovery has been a priority. The benefits of CSR and CS2 support have yet to be fully realised. But the new scheme and tools have the potential to improve case ownership and overall quality of decision making from assessment through to enforcement.
It is early days, but there are emerging concerns around the setting of effective dates, documentation, notification and timeliness. The Committee will monitor those aspects of decision-making as the new scheme position stabilises.
If the benefits of CSR are to be achieved, the Agency will need to ensure compliance with business processes and guidance, and that there is clear accountability for decisions including frontline compliance action and hand offs to specialist teams. Next year we also intend to revisit case ownership, compliance, enforcement and will look at the impact of directed checking on appeals outcomes. We noted the very low level of compliance with procedures in both debt management and enforcement, and are looking for considerable improvement over the next year."

"The Committee recognise that Last Assessment Accuracy has significantly increased, however this remains lower than Last Decision Accuracy due to historical errors found. A detailed analysis of the maintenance assessment errors found is contained at Appendix 5. The majority of errors were identified in the following areas: Supersessions... Effective dates ... Inputting information into the Child Support Computer System and notifications. Regrettably, these error types have been a common trend throughout the five years we have been commenting on the Agency's performance and also featured in previous reports produced by the Chief Child Support Officer and ICE."

"Although it is early days, we are disappointed that errors appear to be creeping into the operation of the new scheme rules, around setting of effective dates, earnings calculations and elements of client contact."

"Additionally this year the Monitoring and Guidance Unit undertook a phone survey to establish the level of knowledge about advance payments of staff in Business Units. The survey shows that whilst 67% of staff had heard of the scheme, only 22% knew how to make a referral and only 14% knew when or why they should make a referral. This highlights the point that whilst there is a certain level of recognition of advance payments of maintenance within the Child Support Agency, there are still serious weaknesses in the lack of sufficient knowledge of Decision Makers to enable him to make a successful reference of a case for an advance payment of maintenance. The above results confirm that in the majority of cases, Advance Payments are made as a result of requests made by parent with cares and not as a result of Decision Makers promoting the scheme. This contravenes Advance Payment of Maintenance guidance that states that action should be taken to consider a payment when a Decision Maker becomes aware of maladministration."

In many ways, the operation of the new scheme is worse than that of the old scheme. In some cases, effort has been diverted from operation of the old scheme in order to help with the new scheme. So some aspects of the operation of the old scheme have got worse, although some have got better.

30th September 2004

A public relations analysis of the Fathers 4 Justice campaign

Here is an interesting article about the Fathers 4 Justice campaign. It is written from the perspective of professional public relations, in a magazine, "PRWeek", devoted to this topic.

Until F4J came along, it was easy for politicians to ignore us, which they did. Unquestionably the dialogue we have had with politicians has improved since F4J. Our aims are now on the agenda. 

Jim Parton, spokesman for Families Need Fathers

F4J is stepping into a political vacuum - male politicians are not debating fatherhood, so it gives its message enormous imperative in PR terms. 

Jack O'Sullivan, spokesman of Fathers Direct

The article discusses the pros and cons of the very direct and visible campaign as a public relations activity. Some of those quoted in the article are critical, and talk about a backlash. However, this may also be evidence that people with a "no change" agenda are reacting. They now have something to be concerned about, because people are taking notice to a rare extent.

"When Matt O'Connor O'Connor set up F4J, he devised a three-year strategy. The first year was intended to build the brand, raise awareness and lobby the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA). The second (current) year centres on direct action and will culminate with its own awards evening to find the best activist of the year. The third year is where O'Connor wants to see increased political debate on its issues. But all O'Connor will say on this is that he will maintain briefing the media.

"F4J's main aim is to achieve automatic presumptions of 50-50 custody in all child access cases, giving both parents equal rights in the eyes of the law.... F4J outlines its policies in a manifesto called 'Blueprint'. It also wants a minister for family life and a government department for family affairs, and the abolition of the Children and Family Court Advisory Service (Cafcass). And it wants to replace the Child Support Agency with a family benefits service allocating equal child maintenance support to both parents, and a Parentshare scheme, in the form of a contract setting out how much time each parent sees their child for."

"Whether branded heroes or villains by the media - it is currently calling them both - leading family lawyers have sympathised with F4J's campaign, including the Law Society's Family Law Panel chief assessor Marilyn Stowe and Justice James Mumby. It is support at this level that could prompt changes.

"F4J's direct action tactics have achieved mass awareness of its cause and broad public sympathy. A poll for Channel 4 chat show Richard and Judy last week found 68 per cent branding them 'heroes' and 32 per cent 'villains'".

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