Headlines: June 25th, 1997

The CSA, which has the responsibility for making sure parents provide financial support for their children, has had a stormy passage since it was launched in 1992. Harriet Harman, Minister for Social Security, catalogued its failures and laid the blame on the previous Government. She claimed that the willingness of fathers to pay maintenance was misjudged and that this was compounded by a lack of clear and consistent targets. The Agency focused on raising revenue and action was targeted on those already paying some maintenance rather than those who were outside the net.She has now given the Chief Executive, Faith Boardman, a new steer. Her priorities are to:

  • ensure more maintenance is paid
  • reduce the backlog of assessments
  • improve customer service.

The picture of the first five years of the CSA painted by Harriet Harman contains salutary lessons for everyone with a responsibility for the governance and management of public sector organisations. The ‘Greenfield start’ was a mixed blessing because staff from different cultures, inside and outside the civil service, found integration difficult. At the same time they had to cope with the teething problems of new systems, both manual and computer. Above all, objectives were not clear and there was a conflict of priorities.

The impact of these difficulties on the outside world was that a sense of unfairness was generated and public support was undermined. From the customers point of view (lone mothers and absent fathers) service was abysmal. They had to wait many months for an assessment, which had only a 50% chance of being correct, and on average it required eight phone calls to make contact with someone who could tell them what was happening. The Agency ‘s published standard is to answer a call within 20 seconds. Offensive and threatening material was sent to CSA staff. Some absent fathers were able to exploit the situation. In short the Agency failed children, lone mothers, absent fathers and the staff.

The Agency has improved its performance slowly but steadily from 1992 to 1997:

  • level of maintenance for a mother on income support has increased from £15 to £30 per week
  • assessment waiting time has reduced from 9 to 6 months
  • accuracy of assessments has improved from 50% to 87%.

The target for the end of 1997 is to ensure that the overwhelming number of cases are assessed and out of the door within six months of their receipt. This will then become the benchmark for measuring future improvement. But, perhaps the greatest challenge is to regain public support. A customer service survey would establish a benchmark to measure progress in this vital area.