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Millions left dangling by DWP call centres

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Analysis Over 20m pleas for help made to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) telephone call centres fell on deaf ears last year because it had a crap computer system and poorly trained staff, said the Public Accounts Committee today.

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the PAC, said in a statement that he was "pleased" with the "progress" the DWP had made with improving the services of its call centres, but that there was room for improvement.

He was referring to just published the National Audit Office review of DWP contact centres serving pensioners, the jobless, the disabled and carers, which makes the point in their defence that most people would like to be able to deal with the government over the telephone when it suits them.

Yet "old and inflexible IT systems" and "fragmented business processes" and "a lack of communication between legacy IT systems" have made life difficult for department staff and the citizens they are employed to help.

This led to 21m people, 18.5m of whom were disabled callers, not being able to get through to government helpers on the telephone last year. Nearly half of all calls made to the DWP went unanswered.

This appears to be because the service transformation has been done from the outside in.

The merger of frontline DWP services into call centres was assisted by the implementation of customer relationship management (CRM) systems - that's the make-up, if you like: the IT system that prompts telephone staff say, "Thank you for calling Job Centre Plus, is there anything else I can help you with?" when the call is over.

But the CRM systems were not integrated with the existing computer systems that are the bones of the department - those systems that store and manipulate important data about people and the predicaments the DWP is supposed to assist.

So the beauty is only skin deep, as has been the case with the supposed e-government transformation of local authorities, most of which has involved the implementation of expensive CRM systems that have yet to be properly installed.

Not only that, but the DWP transformation was managed by firefighters, as is usually the case with these projects.

Take, for example, the Jobcentre Plus call centre, which was kitted out with a new CRM system. Staff weren't trained to use it because of the disruption caused by the programme of redundancies the DWP imposed as a consequence of moving everyone to the call centre in the first place (14,860 redundancies across the department).

Elsewhere too, the organisational change necessary for the transformation was hashed. Call centre staff are made to follow scripts that are inadequate for all but the most average of enquiries. Calls cannot be passed between different areas of the department because they lack "common business processes".

This will all sound very familiar to anyone who read the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report of IT incompetence at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last week.

It reported that the implementation of the PRISM computer system required considerable organisational change that was bodged.

All this makes a nonsense of the government's recent habit of talking up its IT success stories at places like the Passport Office, as was done by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke in a recent Radio 4 interview.

This was also the line taken by Tony Blair's transformation tsar, Ian Watmore, at a recent conference. He slated the press for their obsessive preoccupation with government IT failures. They were overlooking success stories like the passport office, he said.

As it happens, expensive gremlins in the current passport system created such an embarrassment for the Passport Office that its boss was moved last summer to vow it would avoid making the same cock-ups when it starts installing its biometric system this year.

Watmore has put a lot of schemes in motion that may one day rectify the problems in UK.gov, but transformation is being managed to a political timetable that leaves no time for public service managers to catch up.

This is evidenced by the unending series of official reports on government IT and transformation bodges that say the same thing over and over again: the same mistakes are being made, which suggests a lack of honesty and cold scrutiny of unprecedented government expenditure on IT is doing taxpayers a disservice. ®

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