T306 Block 1: Activity 10

Read the case study in Appendix B and draw a rich picture.

The case study describes the mess created when the government started the CSA back in the 90s. I remember this happening back in the 90s and it’s interesting that the day I start reading the case study something pops up in the news about it.

I’ve thankfully never had to deal with them, and I seriously hope I never will. Reading the case study suggested a comedy of errors, but I’m sure that it wasn’t at all funny for the people affected by it. It’s a real lesson in how not to implement a large-scale project.

I’ve read it all the way through without taking notes. I shall now read it again, more thoroughly this time and take notes as I go. I shall then draw up a rich picture using my O-level art skills from the 1980s.Demographic changes (lots of single parents) see benefits expenditure on lone parents increase from £2.4 billion in in 1978/79 to £6.6 billion in 92/93. Fewer lone parents receiving payments from ex-partners (50% in 1980 to 23% in 1990). Recovery of costs from absent parents wasn’t happening. Most maintenance payments were also quite small (average £27 a week).

In 1991, 19% of all family types (with dependent children – under 16, or also 16-18 if in full-time education) were lone parents, vast majority of which were lone mothers (18%).

Government (Thatcher!) proposes to set up an agency to trace absent parents and “make them accept their financial obligations”. Will use a “standard administrative formula” to work out required maintenance payments. White paper released called “Children Come First”, although later I suspect this should have been called “Treasury Come First”, as my perspective on this leads me to think that this was more of move to reduce the burden on benefits system.

Having said that, I generally agree with the concept that absent parents should have to contribute to the upbringing of their own children, rather than relying on the government to do it. This is an worthwhile goal, although the we shall see that the way the government carried this out was something way south of perfect.

CSA to be set up. Trace absent parents, work out how much they should pay and enforce it. Parents with care using Income Support would be obliged to apply for maintenance. None-co-operation would result in reduced benefits, or even prison, unless good reason (like rape or incest etc). White paper was criticised by interested parties – like the Child Poverty Action Group – but Child Support Bill passed with hardly any changes (Feb 1991). Some criticism suggests treasury concerns too foremost and that some of those that do not wish to name fathers (for whatever reason) could suffer greatly. Underlying problem of lone-parent poverty not addressed according to many critics.

Income support would be reduced £ per £ against maintenance received from absent parents, so many families would not be better off. Bill passed in July 1991 without much media attention.

Concern that legislative process went very quickly without sufficient debate, considering the potential impact of the bill. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) say (in 1994) that the future problems of the CSA could have been predicted from the haste of the legislation. Too much secondary legislation and no chance of amending the regulations during debate. Inadequate scrutiny. I think this will be an important part of my rich picture.

One of the main cornerstones of the Act was the all-encompassing formula that would work out the necessary maintenance payments. This was quite complex. The government  would also kindly charge parents for using CSA services (some exemptions, like those on income support, family credit etc).

Child Support Act to be phased in starting April 1993. Target those not on income support etc but no existing maintenance first, then those on benefits, then those with existing court orders or maintenance agreements subsequent to 1996.

CSA starts April 1993. Was this really nearly 20 years ago? Started with “few extant organisational structures”. In other words, nobody really knew what they were supposed to be doing. Fears from lone-parent families that the State will take more from them then give them in return – do not trust the government. This was fairly late on in the extended Tory government. Thatcher was gone but Tories unpopular with many (if I remember rightly).

Goals for CSA in 93/94 included making £530 million in benefit savings with a budget of £115 million, satisfy 65% of clients (that’s a pretty low bar!) and arrange 60% of cases for parents with care making eligible applications. They missed the 60% thing by a long way, partly because the “clients” didn’t trust the CSA. Lots of clients signed declaration forms to show that the process would cause “harm or undue distress” (65,000 by March 1994).

Criticism of CSA started almost immediately it launched. One concern was that it was aiming at the “easy” targets first, like those with existing agreements or with absent parents that were easy to locate because they see their children regularly, whereas neglectful parents were being ignored. So, lone parents with real need were not being helped, but the Treasury was still getting its pound of flesh.

Some allegations that the CSA was causing severe financial hardship with some absent fathers. Some of these cases were true, some exaggerated. However, valid concerns over the inflexibility of the magic formula, and of administrative incompetence. Staff at CSA started receiving hate mail etc and they were getting stressed. Due to the initial problems, government made some recommendations for changes in December 1993.

However, many problems remained. in October 1994 a report from the chief child support officer found that of 1380 assessments only 25% were correct and 39% were incorrect (the rest being too difficult to tell one way or the other). Recommended better staff training, accurate evidence collecting and improvements in calculating earnings etc.

CSA failed to give expected benefit savings (£418 million as opposed to the expected £530 million) and only achieved 31.5% of the eligible applications. Somehow they did achieve 61% client satisfaction (although absent parents were unsurprising less enamoured with 39% rating). How they measured this figure could be described as leading to a higher figure than might have been otherwise gained by just asking “Are you satisfied overall with your experience with the CSA?”.

For the second year, the goalposts were moved. More staff at the CSA and fewer expected cases. If things don’t work very well, expect less? Summer of 1994 Andersen Consulting advise on management structure and procedures. Could they have done this before it started? Horse gone, door still wide open. New head of CSA announced. Would a new broom help?

Answer: not really. Autumn 1994 report shows that over half of all assessments are incorrect. More changes required. Let’s move those goalposts again! Delay next implementation which would have been due in 1996. Criticism continues. CSA accused of abandoning those that really needed their service (those with unrepentant absent fathers) and aimed low to get the easy budget fixes. Accused of putting Treasury first, lone parents second.

By 1995 CSA performance was improving, though lots of mistakes in assessment administration still. Government also highly criticised, as ministers were slow to react to problems. Should have done a pilot study first, but instead rolled the whole thing out in one go. Untrained staff and inadequate supporting technology.

Ann Chant (CSA exec) blamed her clients for “avoiding legal liability”. Claims such problems could not have been anticipated. I might beg to differ there. Why didn’t they anticipate a certain level of non-compliance? Some blame aimed at the relevant ministers who had inadequate oversight over the CSA and were “too easily satisfied with assurances” by CSA officials.

Second year of CSA kept within its budget and exceeded stated benefit savings but failed to meet expected number of assessments and only 47% of assessments were done correctly.

Year 3, some criticisms were taken on board. The magic formula was updated again and more flexibility added into the system. Goalposts were moved again and dropped targets for benefit saving (although they seemed to have been meeting this one already, so I don’t quite get why this was dropped) and also the target for meeting a certain level of arrangements. The latter just seems like they gave up trying to provide a helpful service to people in need. Targets on clearance times were made easier. Rather than try and improve things it seems that they just made their targets easier to meet – lower the bar.

However, it seems that improvements in performance were made in this time. It does seem, though, that the CSA became less crap as opposed to having acceptable levels of performance. Still lots of mistakes and 1 in 6 of all cases were actually complaints about the CSA. Still too many incorrect assessments.

Year four saw some “significant improvements” although there were still far too many assessments to be done (only 1/3rd of lone parents on income support had received an assessment). Still too many mistakes.

Then the CSA decided to write off their IT systems due to its ineffectiveness. It seems that they’re blaming the computing systems for most of the mistakes. Made by EDS. Seems odd that they then decide to give EDS the contract for the new one. The new system could actually wipe out nearly all the benefit savings made so far.

The crux of this whole mess seems to me to be the following points:

  • Inadequate parliamentary debate
  • Hasty implementation
  • Organisational infrastructure not ready at launch
  • Initially inflexible formula
  • Inadequate staff training causing leading to large numbers of errors
  • Poorly designed IT systems
  • Resistance from clients due to mistrust of agency/government
  • Constantly shifting goals
  • Inadequate ministerial control


Rich picture:
CSA Rich Picture

%d bloggers like this: