Headlines: September 4th, 1998

Information about what public organisations need to do to improve their service to the public has emerged from the often-criticised Child Support Agency.

Though damning, the first report of the Independent Case Examiner – appointed last year – points to the causes of the CSA’s problems, and to what action is likely to be effective in addressing them.

Anne Parker, who took up the new post 18 months ago, criticises the Agency for being largely unresponsive to customers’ complaints.

She said: “I have seen how the Agency’s customers have been frustrated, sometimes grossly inconvenienced and, in some cases, suffered actual financial loss due to the Agency’s maladministration. Often a response which offers an acknowledgement to their problem together with an explanation of why things have gone wrong, would be sufficient. Such responses are rare”.

But her report also empathises with the caseload size and complexity of the system Agency staff have to manage. For instance each interest rate change produces floods of claims for changes to maintenance arrangements.

>From the first complaints investigated by her office, the following patterns have emerged:

– poor communications with customers
– complaints handling processes failing to put things right
– difficulties in obtaining maintenance from self-employed people
– build-up of arrears of child support maintenance due to delayed action by the Agency.

In its second year, the Independent Case Examiner’s team of investigators will be looking closely for signs that it is improving customer service.

The Green paper issued in July proposes significant reforms to the Agency that should provide some of the improvements to the complexities with which Agency staff work.