Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)
MS ALEXIS CLEVELAND, MR CHARLIE MACKINNON AND MR GEORGE MCCORKELL
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
80. What about the old sore of home visits being co-ordinated across other agencies who have a relevant interest, for example dealing with Housing Benefit or Attendance Allowance and so forth? Are you onto that as a means of co-ordination, so that instead of giving someone several home visits, which is not what they would want and not always in the interests of the taxpayers' resources, you do have proper co-ordination?
(Ms Cleveland) Yes. Certainly in the first instance it can be worse than that because in the Benefits Agency you could have had a Minimum Income Guarantee home visit and a Retirement Pension home visit. We are certainly looking to co-ordinate all activity which is related to the services we deliver for The Pension Service and as far as possible link those with any in relation to Attendance Allowance which is dealt with by another part of the business at the moment. In the longer term, we are into 2005-2006, we are looking to share far more information with local authorities and collect far more information with local authorities. There is already work going on between ourselves and various local authorities to combine some of those visits where either they can collect information on our behalf or we can collect information on their behalf. It would be unfair to say that we could integrate those fully this side of Pension Credit.
81. Are you actually addressing this point about one-stop home visits with these other agencies?
(Ms Cleveland) At a general level, with the Local Government Association and at a departmental level but not at the individual level.
82. To what extent are there mechanisms in place on the ground to ensure that this happens? You are giving me the global picture, but what is happening on the ground to make sure these visits are co-ordinated?
(Ms Cleveland) It varies from local authority to local authority at the moment. Some are keener to join in with some of these exercises than others.
83. So in some of these authorities it would be perfectly possible for there to be no-co-ordination whatsoever, notwithstanding what you have just said.
(Ms Cleveland) I would have to go back and check the detail, but there are some aspects of information that local authorities always want to collect directly themselves. That is not always information you necessarily need to have through a home visit. In some of our areas we have had Benefits Agency staff in the past collecting information which is required for Housing Benefit and then passing that on to the local authority through a single home visit.
84. May I just underline this? If I have understood this correctly, it is that the Minister may want to correct what he has told the House of Commons about the choice available to pensioners.
(Ms Cleveland) Or I may need to correct my business model.
Mr Mitchell: When we have your note on this I hope we can just return to that point to give the Minister a chance to make a correction if he indeed needs to do so., 
85. That is a perfectly reasonable question to clarify. I am bound to put it to you that the impression we get from the pressure groups who are well established, Age Concern and Help the Aged for example, people who have a solid track record in this area, is that they are, in my opinion, sceptical and feel that the local home visit aspect of this whole project will take second place very much to the high-tech, brand new, technology driven call centre side of this. From the questions Ms Buck was putting, it is obvious that there is still a long way to go and nobody would expect you to be able to answer all of these questions in detailed terms on practical implementation. Just reassure us that you feel that it is just as important to get the local service, as you aspire to create it up and running as the call centre side of it, dealing with the service delivered by telephone. Just reassure us that this new project will fail if only half of it succeeds.
(Ms Cleveland) I would not quite look at it in that way but I can give you the assurance you are looking for. At the heart of what we are trying to do is design a service which meets our customer needs. Whether those needs are met through a local service, providing face to face contact, whether it is working through third parties who can actually act on our behalf or whether it is us dealing with them directly through a contact centre, that philosophy transcends whether we are doing something over the internet, electronic government, face to face or call centres coming through. It is very much gearing the service to the needs of the customer.
86. The local service is not going to be a poor relation.
(Ms Cleveland) We cannot succeed unless the local service is successful.
Chairman: That is an important sentence.
87. I want to ask about IT. What lessons are you learning from Burnley and Swansea? We looked at Burnley and it looked very impressive on paper, but when we talked to the operators there were some problems with the IT there. It was not quite as all-singing, all-dancing as it was designed to be. You talked earlier about timetable slippage and various things in The Pension Service. How are things going on the IT?
(Ms Cleveland) Given that I also used to work in the IT Services Agency I feel I ought to have first go at that. As you know, the Department for Work and Pensions has a huge change programme coming along. We were anxious that within pensions we got almost ahead of the game in terms of that. What we are very much looking to do is pick up on the IT changes which supported the customer interface and supported this model of taking this single customer view. Within Burnley, this was something which was put together very quickly, it is not using the traditional bespoke DSS/DWP systems, it is taking a set of commercially available products and integrating them to meet our needs; the sort of products which have been developed for insurance companies, retail organisations, people who are in the customer service business. We wanted to add that to the front end of our system. Has this worked as a strategy and is this a good way forward? I am totally convinced that we are getting some improvements in our customer service as a result of that exercise. In terms of immediate lessons learned, it was never designed to go as a "big bang"roll this out across the country. It was very much set up as an environment in which we would learn how to take things forward. The IT was set up to be very flexible. The one thing we knew going into it was that we would get it wrong at the beginning. That was the only certainty: that we would get it wrong. We needed to have systems which could be quite flexibly changed. Both ourselves and EDS, our main IT provider on this, have learned a lot through implementing this in Burnley, but it is also not just the IT, it is the way training and the way a lot of the other products link in with the IT as well. There have been some delays with IT products being delivered a bit late. I hope you saw from the reaction at the Burnley site that the technical people, the local managers and staff have been working together very closely. I do not just take IT lessons from Burnley but a lot about getting the culture right for the organisation and working with the staff, so they can exploit the IT to its maximum effect as we go through.
88. Sure but, focussing on the IT, do you have any idea when that is going to be available to be rolled out nationally?
(Mr McCorkell) We have a significant enhancement to what you saw in Burnley due in August and further significant enhancements are due next April. That will then finish the Burnley model as provided. The major lesson we have learned is quite clearly a lesson from past experience. Do not try to do this all in one big shot on one date because IT projects like that fail. We are doing our IT in a phased delivery method. What you saw in Burnley was our first phase. We are stabilising that phase; it is now becoming stable. We shall put in our next enhancement in August and we shall then stabilise that. We shall put in the next enhancement in April of next year and we shall stabilise that. When we know all of that is stable, we are then in a position to roll it out. Because we are doing Pension Credit, it is not a time to roll the new IT system out while you are bringing on the new benefit. We may not start rolling it out everywhere until we stabilise Pension Credit. It could be April 2004 before we roll the full Burnley model out everywhere. In the meantime, the bits of Burnley which become stable and are stable, that we can take to enhance the other centres, we will take. The big lesson is: stabilise your IT in a pilot environment, know it is working before you take the risk to the normal pensioner service, because we must be paying pensions. That is the major lesson. The other big lesson is that we have designed this from the customer in. We have not designed this from benefit products out. We have designed this from the point of view of how it affects the customer. Perhaps I might say something which would reassure you on the local service. The local service needs are fundamental to the design of the contact centre and to the IT which supports it. We shall be looking to put facilities in to capture customer information which allows us to know whether things like local visits are needed. We shall be looking to link to local authorities to co-ordinate visits, visit bookings. Clearly there have to be two parties to that. We can only link with local authorities who are prepared to play that game. In the case of those who will, our IT will be capable of linking to their IT, of booking visits and co-ordinating the booking of visits. All of that is built into the overall long-term design. We will not get it all immediately, but it is there and plans in place to put that in place for the total service.
89. Are you on time at the moment? Are you where you expected to be?
(Mr McCorkell) We are where we expected to be in Burnley at the moment.
90. How are you going to cope with Pension Credit coming into this timetable?
(Mr McCorkell) We start advanced claims for Pension Credit in April next year. The main process of Pension Credit will be governed by amending our current Income Support system, not on a new system. We are not building a new system for Pension Credit, we shall be amending our Income Support system for Pension Credit and that is the safest way to guarantee the Pension Credit timetable.
91. So you are amending a system which the previous Secretary of State described to us as "very decrepit" to handle a complex Pension Credit benefit system, which will means test five million people. Am I understanding you correctly there? You are in a sense bolting on five million people to a "decrepit system" which is not due for replacement until April 2004.
(Mr McCorkell) That current system deals with the pensioners who are on Minimum Income Guarantee. We are amending that to deal with Pension Credit instead of Minimum Income Guarantee.
92. Remind me how many are on Minimum Income Guarantee at the moment.
(Ms Cleveland) I think it is 1.7 million.
93. In round terms you are tripling it. From 1.7 million to 5.1 million would be tripling on this old system. Do you think it can stand it? You are the IT person.
(Mr McCorkell) We have sized the system and in terms of the size of the system we shall make the necessary enhancements to the system to ensure that it copes with that load and we shall be testing that.
94. Will you be doing that in-house or using Affinity or EDS or whoever?
(Mr McCorkell) The IT is developed by EDS to our specification.
95. To put you on the spot, what is your confidence level in EDS, given that they are involved in the CSA?
(Mr McCorkell) On this particular system, my confidence level is high because this is an existing system where, in fact, the staff who will be doing this work are mainly staff who were outsourced at EDS two years ago. They are very experienced in the system, they work extremely well. We are very experienced in this system in terms of testing it, so it is an entirely different scale of operation from the major replacement at CSA, which was a major new system. This is enhancing a current system where the technical staff know the system very, very well, where the staff who will test this system know it very well (which is crucially important). We shall be using very experienced people on our side to test the system, so my confidence is very much higher.
96. Is that where you expect to be in five years' time in terms of Pension Credit for example: continuing to enhance the system or going for a new system?
(Mr McCorkell) No. Our plan for the technology for The Pension Service is, as you have seen in Burnley, working in from the front end using package software which is available, which we can integrate and put together and working through to the back end of the systems. Eventually we shall replace that system and we shall replace the current Retirement Pension system, so we shall have an integrated back-end, supported by a very modern front-end, which uses technology very similar to the banks, building societies and insurance companies. It is standard technology which has been developed for other services, not just for us.
97. I am particularly concerned about the overlap, as it appears to be, between April 2003, when you take advanced claims for Pension Credit, and April 2004, when you expect to be ready for a national roll-out of the Burnley developed model. It strikes me that is going to be a very difficult year for your staff and your customers. Do you agree?
(Mr McCorkell) I agree that the ideal situation might well be that we have all this technology, and modern, beautiful technology, ready before Pension Credit. What we have to do is look at the totality of the things we have to do and the priorities and ensure that we meet the priorities. Our priority during 2003 is to implement the Pension Credit product, to get Pension Credit to pensioners. To do that we have to stabilise and have a stable system. We cannot be changing the systems while we are doing that. It would be very dangerous for us to be changing the systems, trying to train the staff in new systems, trying to put new technology in, while we are trying to give people Pension Credit. We are quite deliberately saying that we are going to stabilise during that period, concentrate on the implementation of Pension Credit, make sure we get the take-up of Pension Credit. Once we have stabilised that and know that is under way, then we can switch on the upgrade.
98. Do I deduce, perhaps wronglyyou will tell me if I do - that means there may be more slippage on the national call centre model because your IT focus will be more on the Pension Credit, understandably, than on enhancing the IT for the call centre?
(Mr McCorkell) Not in terms of the development of the IT because, given that for Pension Credit we are implementing the IT on the existing system, the continuing development of the Burnley model and the other things we have to do to support that model, to take it even further and to take it nationally, can be done in parallel in terms of development. We do not have to interfere with the Pension Credit. The thing which could delay the roll-out is how long it takes us to have successfully implemented Pension Credit, because we do not want to be changing things while we are implementing that.
99. I am getting a bit lost here in terms of this parallel development. I understand the concept. Are there not supposed to be 26 pension centres rolled out across the country based on a call centre model?
(Mr McCorkell) Yes.
5 Further clarification on the conditions for receiving a home visit was given by The Pension Service in its supplementary memorandum (PS02), para 5, Ev 23. Back
6 Please also refer to correspondence between the Chairman of the Committee and the Minister of State for Work and Pensions (PS 01A), Ev 32. Back