Problems bedevil massive EDS system in UK

A welfare case management and telephony system worth some US$806.5 million is in danger of being unplugged if the agency overseeing it cannot fix technical and procedural processes in the next several months.

The implementation involves a Java-based, custom-written application from integrator Electronic Data Systems that's meant to handle case management for the U.K.'s Child Support Agency (CSA). The agency oversees the assessment and collection of child support payments from separated parents. It also includes a telephone call center system from BT Group's consulting and systems integration business.

The mixed CSA application and telephony system was the subject of a damning report issued in July by Parliament's Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the legislative body charged with oversight of the CSA.

The complaints about the CSA system include missed implementation deadlines, an inability to migrate existing cases to the new system, a telephony system that provides an "appalling level of service" and a backlog of 170,000 cases that grows by 30,000 each quarter. Additionally, the two systems haven't worked well together, "with customers' calls being routed to the wrong place and cases disappearing from the caseworker's screen as staff try to answer a telephone inquiry."

The committee recommended that if the telephony system is not fully functional by May, it should be abandoned and replaced. The committee also said that if the CSA application isn't fully operational to process new cases by Dec. 1 -- and the agency can't guarantee the ability to migrate existing cases by May 2005 -- then a contingency plan should be readied.

The options the CSA is due to present by February 2005 could include unplugging the system altogether. The committee also urged the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), of which the CSA is a part, to conduct a "full postmortem" as soon as possible into the troubled project.

The DWP has two months to respond to the recommendations of the special committee, said one of its members, Rob Marris. Although that deadline is flexible, he said the response would most likely be coming next month.

"We are not saying the system should be abandoned come December," he said. "What we are saying is the government should draw a line in the sand if DWP cannot come up with a guarantee."

Because of the problems with the new system, the legacy system, with its very complex payment formulas, has to be run in parallel. That constitutes a large expense for the government, although exactly how much more the move is costing isn't clear. With both systems running, some people are on the old system, while others are on the new.

Marris said this troubled system illustrates a general problem with government contracts and private IT firms. "You don't have enough experts, so you can't know about and police what the outside supplier is doing," he said.

A spokeswoman from the DWP said via e-mail that her agency has yet to respond to the committee report. However, she said, "There have been technical problems with the IT and telephony systems, which we are working on with our supplier, EDS. The secretary of state will make an announcement to the House of Commons once these issues are resolved."

She did not offer any more specifics.

For its part, EDS declined comment, except to reiterate a statement it issued late in July.

"While there have been problems with several aspects of the program, the DWP-EDS team is executing a joint plan to resolve the outstanding IT and business issues," said Tom Warsop, managing director of the DWP account for EDS. "The IT system is now delivering a robust service and is constantly improving."

He also noted that the government has paid only for the services that have been delivered, while EDS has paid for all the development work so far.

A source close to the implementation said that most of the problems now are more cultural than technical.

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