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The most administratively incompetent government agency in living memory

It might be hard to identify "the second most incompetent government agency". There are many contenders, and they jockey for position, changing year by year. But there has been only one winner of the title "most incompetent government agency" in over a decade.

What does "administratively incompetent" mean?

Some government agencies / services act partly or fully on behalf of "the state" (or "the Crown"). You don't judge the prison service according to whether its "customers" are satisfied with it, and similarly for the police service, and even money-collecting services such as the Inland Revenue or Customs & Excise. They can be judged on whether they adequately implement their legislation & competently follow their processes. But some of the judgement must be left to "the state".

Some services are focussed on "citizens" (or "subjects") but still can't easily be judged by the satisfaction of the customers. Some customers of the National Health Service will die however competent it is. Some children will fail to reach high academic standards however good the school.

But the Child Support Agency has fewer issues that make judgement hard. It exists to provide clearly defined services to citizens, and those services can't be excused according to "the operation was successful but the patient died". Is it or is it not implementing the legislation? Has it got processes in place capable of implementing the legislation? Is it or is it not following its own processes? Are its service level targets credible in comparison with the nearest equivalents in the private sector, and is it meeting those targets?

If not, then it is administratively incompetent - it only exists to achieve those things, so they are the prime way its administration should be judged. (There are secondary judgements that need to be made, such as its treatment of its staff and the environment, but they are side effects of the fact that it exists - if it can't perform its primary function, it shouldn't even exist and those secondary judgements go away).

The CSA has been failing by any plausible measure, and continues to do so.

Who am I to judge?

Actually, being childfree, my own dealings with the CSA have been reasonably satisfactory! I ask for information or books, and typically get it/them. (I have been surprised that staff on the National Enquiry Line have sometimes been unable to answer questions on recently-introduced legislation, and sense some lack of preparation, but in other dealings I have tended eventually to get answers).

So this article is really a catalogue of the judgements of other more knowledgeable judges. It doesn't add to what is already known by those "in the business".

Who is to blame?

It is easy to blame the front line staff. They are the ones who appear to be failing to deliver the service. Indeed, some of them may be personally incompetent.

But most commentators recognise that the CSA was doomed to fail - it hardly stood a chance. If you are prepared to read just one book on the subject, read [1]. It describes in an approachable manner the political processes leading to the legislation, then the creation of the CSA and its first few years of operation.

The CSA's attitude

What makes matters worse is that sometimes the CSA acts towards its "clients" as though it isn't actually displaying this sort of incompetence, or far worse than that, that it doesn't matter. This attitude sometimes comes from the top. Here is an astonishing exchange when the CEO of the CSA was giving evidence to the Parliamentary Public Accounts Select Committee [2]:

Maria Eagle: "Do you not realise that each of these wrong assessments is burning in somebody's heart and home in one of our constituencies?"

Faith Boardman: "I think that is an exaggeration. These are cases where in many instances the parents concerned will not actually be conscious that there has been an error".

Ponder the concept that errors by government agencies become less important if the people impacted are not (currently) conscious of them!

Or the government tries to put the blame for complaints about errors back onto the "client":

"Baroness Hollis also announced that parents will be given the chance to discuss their case in face-to-face interviews. The hope is that by giving the CSA a "human face" and offering non-resident parents the chance to put their side of the story of their marriage break-up in person, they will reduce antagonism and complaints about inaccurate or unrealistic assessments."

This was said at a time when the CSA was set a target to achieve correct assessments values in at least 78% of cases, and they only achieved 70.5% correct! [3]


[1] Child Support In Action
Gwynn Davis, Nick Wikeley, Richard Young with Jacquelin Barron, Julie Bedward
Hart Publishing 1998 - ISBN 1-901362-70-1

[2] Child Support Agency: Client Funds Account 1996-97
Committee of Public Accounts
ISBN: 0 10 245298 9; 23.02.98

[3] Child payments 'must be seen as tax on fathering'
The Times January 4 2000 POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Page last updated: 31 July, 2005 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2003