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Risky child-support plans rely too much on new IT system – NAO

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Plans by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission to cut spending are risky and rely too much on the introduction of a new IT system, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

The commission has committed to cutting its budget to £428m in 2014-15 – although this is £44m higher than than its original estimate – from a 2010-11 budget of £560m.

"Faced with a challenging but achievable target for reducing its spending, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is relying heavily on the introduction of fees to parents, underpinned by a new IT system. This is a high risk approach with no contingencies if it goes awry," said NAO head Amyas Morse.

While the child maintenance administration system was envisaged as a way of saving money, its own price tag has risen since it was conceived. In January 2011 its cost was estimated at £149m, by October of that year it had risen to £275m. "The commission cannot afford the cost of its new child maintenance scheme to increase further," according to the NAO's report, Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission: Cost reduction.

The system is intended to replace two existing ones, which each underpin a separate child maintenance scheme. Due to flaws in the IT systems for each scheme, some 100,000 cases have had to be removed from the system and managed manually by clerical staff at a cost of £48m, according to the NAO.

The delivery date of the system has slipped three times from full delivery in April 2010, to implementation in two phases in October 2012 and July 2013.

"Ministers have stated that introducing fees depends on the commission implementing a new, effective child maintenance scheme from October 2012. The [commission's predecessor, the Child Support] Agency did not have a good track record in delivering IT systems. Our analysis suggests that the commission could repeat some of the agency's mistakes. The original plans were optimistic and the commission lacked sufficient internal resources to understand fully how the IT system would be developed," the report said.

According to the document, among the mistakes made by the Child Support Agency that the commission is at risk of repeating include having sufficient internal technical resources to be an intelligent customer of the contractor.

"The commission initially used elements of both an 'agile' (iterative) approach and a traditional approach to build the new system. Its mix and match approach meant there were two distinct routes for specifying requirements and resulted in duplicated, conflicting and ambiguous specifications. The commission did not have previous experience of using the agile approach," the report notes.

"The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) concluded in July 2011 that the commission's ability to act as an intelligent customer contributed to slippage in the programme."

Along with the introduction of an "agile approach", undertaken in mid-2011, the commission has improved on existing government measures, such as the use of 'project review gates' which stop design work proceeding from one stage to the next without being ratified by all main stakeholders, it said.

"It is not yet clear whether such remedial actions have sufficiently addressed the earlier problems. An external review rated the programme as 'amber' in July 2011. The commission must undertake critical testing in parallel with programme delivery to meet the implementation date," the NAO report adds.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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