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DWP told to come clean on IT

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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been told it should be more open about its development and use of IT systems if it wants to avoid another costly cock-up like the CSA.

The recommendation was made today in the House of Commons Select Committee on Work and Pensions' report on plans to replace the problematic Child Support Agency (CSA) with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (C-MEC).

The committee report, Child Support Reform, said: "Our predecessor committee wrote in depth about these problems and recommended that the DWP should be significantly more open about its IT projects. In this light we recommend that the government publish detailed explanation of its plans for C-MEC's IT system in an attempt to win public confidence before the work begins.

The report made no assessment of how any attempt at transparency might be compromised by the "commercial confidence" obligations government departments make with their IT suppliers.

EDS, the DWP's IT supplier, has shown before how corporate priorities can prevent the disclosure of public information.

The DWP spent £539m on business and IT reforms between June 2000 and 2006, but was still sent to the knackers yard last summer after it was discovered that for every £1 it collected in child maintenance from absent parents, 70 pence was spent on administration.

The committee report said: "We have seen no evidence that, with CSA's record of serial IT failures, this third attempt to create a new system of child maintenance arrangements with the necessary IT support will be any more successful than the first two," it said.

"The National Audit Office report on IT projects, Delivering successful IT-enabled business change, highlights the complexities of the technical issues around joining new and old systems and we hope that the department has learnt from its past mistakes with the first two CSA IT systems."

EDS, which has been criticised for its part in the CSA debacle, was thought likely to be retained to develop CSA v3.0 because it still had about another four years left of its 10-year DWP contract.

A spokeswoman for the firm said, however, that it might not necessarily be commissioned to develop a computer system for C-MEC.

The report noted a comment made to the committee in February by secretary of state for work and pensions John Hutton in support of EDS: "We have learned a lot from previous exercises and I think in EDS we have a partner which has worked very hard with us to try to fix this system."

"There is a very considerable amount of painfully learnt experience that now must be applied and will be applied to the resolution of these outstanding problems both between now and when the new scheme starts and when C-MEC starts itself," he added.

The report also noted how the CSA's problems had stemmed from its attempt to shoehorn complex lives into a series of formulaic rules controlled by computer. Parents would be encouraged to make their own arrangements, though the committee had been told that this might make it easy for shirkers to avoid their responsibilities. ®

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