Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) (CS 02)

1.  SUMMARY

  1.1  The Child Support Agency (CSA) was established in April 1993.

  1.2  Its aim is to deliver a professional, efficient and sensitive child support service which plays its part in ensuring that children whose parents do not live together are financially supported and kept out of poverty. To do that it seeks to make a speedy and accurate assessment of child maintenance due, to ensure that this is paid and to help clients through this. It recognises that despite recent improvements it still has some way to go to meet this ambition and is dependent on the successful implementation of the changes within the child support reform programme to do so.

  1.3  The CSA's main operational targets are set by the Secretary of State on advice from the Children's Client Director. These targets are published in the CSA's annual Business Plan and include:

    —  the proportion of assessed maintenance entitlement collected; and

    —  the accuracy of assessments made.

  1.4  The values of these targets are kept under review and adjusted annually. Information on performance against them is set out in the CSA's Annual Report and Accounts. In year performance reporting against these and other operational targets and objectives takes place within the Department's overall performance management framework.

  1.5  The first phases of the child support reform programme have already been implemented. These include:

    —  the "early legislative changes" which provided greater powers:

      —  for tracing non-resident parents;

      —  to seek information from third parties; and

      —  to prosecute for failure to provide information or for providing false information;

    —  in enforcing payment;

    —  restructuring the front-end of the CSA business to create "new client teams";

    —  introducing new debt management arrangements backed with an enhanced debt management computer system and supported by new bailiff arrangements;

    —  implementing "sign posting" training for all staff involved in day to day contact with clients. This ensures that clients with particular difficulties are given the opportunity to contact partners in the voluntary sector to gain specialist help;

    —  introducing new performance management arrangements and invested in a major training programme for managers; and

    —  acting as a pilot for and implementing a new desktop computer system.

  1.6  Against that background of successful implementation it was disappointing that the Agency's IT partners, EDS, were unable to complete testing of the new IT system in time to permit them to commence the next stage of the reform programme and implement the new rules for maintenance calculation from the planned April 2002 start date.

2.  ABOUT THE AGENCY

  2.1  The Agency employs around 12,000 full and part-time staff based in six main centres, 18 Satellite Processing Centres and 88 Local Service Bases for our face-to-face work. There is a headquarters unit based in Longbenton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

  2.2  It is managed by a 10 member Board chaired by the Chief Executive, Doug Smith. The other nine seats are filled by four executive directors and five non-executive directors (of which two are drawn from outside the Department). The four executive responsibilities embrace:

    —  operational delivery and the management of the office network;

    —  change, primarily delivery and implementation of the child support reform programme;

    —  staff and client relations; and

    —  finance and planning.

  2.3  The Agency is committed to a programme of continuous improvement and has structured its planning around the business excellence model promoted by the European Foundation for Quality Management. Within that model it has recently achieved re-accreditation to Investors in People and 24 teams within the Agency (including one whole Business Unit) have achieved Charter Mark awards.

  2.4  The Agency's total spend in 2001-02 was £223.5 million. Its budget for the current year is £227.8 million. Its caseload now totals just over 1.1 million and it will receive during the course of this year around 300,000 new applications. Around 92 per cent of these are likely to be from clients in receipt of state benefits and around 8 per cent will be from private clients.

3.  FOCUSSING ON CLIENTS

  3.1  During the last year the "front-end" of the Agency's business was re-organised to create new client teams. The intention of this was partly to prepare for the changes which would be needed when the new rules for calculating child maintenance were introduced. But the Agency also sought to seize the opportunity to improve the quality of service offered to clients when they first approached the Agency.

  3.2  It therefore invested in a training programme for all staff involved in these new teams to ensure that they were properly skilled in relation to handling clients at what is often an emotionally difficult phase in their lives. They were also given negotiating skills training to assist them in working with non-resident parents to ensure an early and regular flow of maintenance. This training has paid off in terms of achieving improved accuracy and improved compliance. It has also significantly improved the productivity of those teams.

  3.3  Those and other customer-facing teams were also given "sign posting" training. This was developed and delivered in conjunction with our partners in the voluntary sector. It recognised that the Agency was unlikely to be able to deal with the full range of problems being faced by many of the people with whom it was coming into contact. Staff are now trained to guide people toward organisations in the voluntary sector who are best placed to offer specialist help. Initial feedback from the voluntary sector is positive, clients appear to value the information the Agency staff give them and staff themselves feel that they are making a positive contribution toward helping clients resolve difficult issues.

  3.4  Agency senior managers meet quarterly with all major stakeholders to discuss both operational issues and issues arising from the child support reform programme. Client consultation panels have been established in each Business Unit to help measure client satisfaction and to seek input on how it might best improve its services. Through the panels the Agency are able to test plans and ideas, obtain quick feedback and maintain a focus on issues from a client perspective.

  3.5  In response to client demand the Agency provides a "face to face" service so that people who have difficulty in resolving issues by telephone or in writing can meet with an experienced caseworker either in a local office or exceptionally in their own home.

4.  FOCUSSING ON STAFF

  4.1  One-third of the Agency's staff are aged under 30, over a quarter have been with the Agency for two years or less and over half earn £12,500 or less each year. That means that many have not fully developed "life skills", they are relatively inexperienced and they are relatively low paid. The current wastage rate is around 14 per cent. Sick absence levels remain high at around an average of 12 days per year, per member of staff.

  4.2  All this adds a particular premium to developing first-rate management skills so that the Agency encourages everyone to give of their best. The Agency has therefore invested in management training and development. This has been underpinned by a published set of "management standards" against which managers will, for the future, be appraised.

  4.3  The Agency has sought to limit wastage by:

    —  ensuring that new potential recruits are aware before joining of the real nature of the job;

    —  incentivising staff through team performance bonuses; and

    —  conducting exit interviews to understand why people are leaving.

  4.4  The Agency have sought to limit sick absence by:

    —  encouraging a healthy lifestyle through the appointment of occupational health advisors and the creation of a health screening programme;

    —  keeping in touch with people on sick absence and offering support and encouragement to return to work;

    —  ensuring that managers act when an unjustified absence occurs; and

    —  ensuring that appropriate referrals are made to external medical support and where appropriate employment is terminated.

  4.5  In June last year the Agency conducted a staff attitude survey. On the whole the Agency was regarded as a good employer but not surprisingly staff had some concerns about pay and levels of stress.

  4.6  The Agency works in partnership with the main staff trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union. Examples of the benefit of partnership working include joint reviews of security concerns of face to face workers and the difficult issue of how we use alternative working patterns to create a full service to clients beyond the traditional working day. They also worked closely with us on implementation of team performance bonuses.

5.  PERFORMANCE

  5.1  Annex A to this note sets out the Agency's year end results on operational targets agreed with the Secretary of State.

  5.2  The picture painted by these annexes is positive. In short productivity is higher over the year than the Agency expected, accuracy is better and compliance has increased. The increased productivity has not shown through in making the expected in-roads into work on hand reductions only because work intake has outstripped its ability to work faster.

  5.3  The Agency is seeking to sustain similar levels of performance in the current year which will also contain significant change as it implements the next stages of the child support reform programme. The Agency are again seeking to incentivise performance through a team bonus scheme.

6.  CHILD SUPPORT REFORM

  6.1  A number of key elements within the child support reform programme have already been implemented successfully. But the key change, the adoption of new rules for new cases, planned for April had to be deferred because the computer system required for implementation had not at that time completed testing. This is being developed under a private finance initiative contract by the Agency's IT partners, EDS.

  6.2  The Secretary of State has indicated that he will not be able to indicate a date for the commencement of the new rules until he is satisfied that the IT system is available and has been properly tested.

  6.3  The deferral was disappointing, particularly as the Agency had geared itself up to and was fully prepared for implementation in April. Senior managers have worked hard with staff to ensure that this disappointment did not impact morale in a way which diminished operational effectiveness.

May 2002


 
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