Stockpiled child support claims that never made it into the computer system, files that were deleted for no clear reason and incorrect information that was intentionally entered by demoralised staff in a desperate attempt to keep cases active.
These are all parts of a decidedly difficult picture painted in a report commissioned by the UK government to assess the child-support case management and telephony system of the Child Support Agency (CSA).
The problem-plagued, £456m CSA system involves a Java-based application developed by Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as well as a telephone call centre system from BT 's consulting and systems integration business.
The CSA system, launched two years behind schedule in March 2003 and £256m over budget, has been blamed for delaying payments to tens of thousands of single parents.
"Some innovative members of staff had attempted to find alternative solutions to the problems caused by the fragile IT system, in order to provide better service to clients. Staff were not always entirely sure how near they were to breaking rules," according to the report, Child Support Reform: The views and experiences of CSA staff and new clients.
Some at the CSA were so frustrated with the IT system that they simply broke down in tears. "Others told us that all kinds of members of staff were succumbing to tears: male and female, old and young, experienced and new," the report said.
EDS officials were not immediately available to comment on the report.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), responsible for overseeing the CSA, commissioned the report from the Personal Finance Research Centre (PFRC) at the University of Bristol. Most of the 64 staff interviews were conducted in April last year, according to a PFRC spokesman.
The DWP on Tuesday stressed that improvements have since been made to the system, reducing the impact of the report. "The information in this report is quite old; a number of new software releases have been made and there has been significant improvement," a spokesman for the DWP said.
EDS is still working with the DWP to get the system "satisfactorily functional," the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Alan Johnson said last month in a House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee progress report. He also revealed that the DWP has withheld £13.3m in payments to EDS over the last two years.
However, despite the progress being made in addressing problems with the IT system, the CSA is expected to delay the transfer of hundreds of thousands of cases from its old systems until next year, the PFRC report said.
"We will not jeopardise cases where money is already flowing to children by moving them onto the new system until we are sure it is working properly," the DWP spokesman said Tuesday.
The report, which assessed not just the new IT system but the entire overhaul of the CSA that was undertaken at the same time, consists of interviews with 42 administrative officers and 12 executive level staff members, as well as 58 clients. The CSA employs 10,000 people.
Those interviewed criticised the design, speed and reliability of the system, specifically pointing to screens that took anywhere from 20 seconds to 10 minutes to refresh, the lack of a delete button for accidental errors and instances where staff were unable to send cases to the right office and therefore "simply deleted them" with the hope that they were duplicated in the appropriate business unit.
"Some staff said that they were entering some incorrect information to fill in unknown details so that they could get the system to continue with the case," the report said. "One admitted to entering old employer details knowing a client had changed jobs, just to keep the case active."
The training process was also highlighted as ineffective and inappropriate. Rather than receiving training on the live system, the majority of staff were given specially prepared computer training discs containing only straightforward and problem-free cases. On a positive note, that process had already begun to improve last year as trainers started delivering the course in modular format, with time for consolidation between topics, the report said.
Despite being encouraged last year by the Select Committee to completely scrap the system, it appears that the DWP has decided to focus on fixing what it has, though the DWP was unable to say when the system is expected to be fully operational.
The CSA "very much values its staff who work in difficult circumstances involving emotional family break-ups. That said, there is still some way to go before the (CSA) is delivering for all its clients the level of service they are entitled to expect," the DWP said.