Identifying the Cause of the Child Support Agency's Problems
by G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson
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Conclusions - the CSA Case Study

The purpose of this paper was to examine and expose the elements contributing to the problems the British Child Support Agency has faced during its decade of existence. As the evidence disclosed within the content of this paper has shown, the identification of the exact problem the Agency faced is complicated in nature and it would appear that several key factors united to reduce the CSA to the 'Next Step' nightmare that it became.

To commence the catalogue of errors from the beginning sees an agency rushed into existence with little time for consultation or trial running. Basing policy upon a selective and perhaps misinterpreted knowledge of the pre-existing US system did not help this. Thus the policy in place was inappropriate from the start and it is not unsurprising that there were numerous attempts to revise said policy through legislative reform.

Considering the internal management of the agency, we have clearly pointed out that the CSA, whilst being based upon New Public Management, omitted market forces from their operational plan and thus rejected one of the guiding principles of such a system: that the most effective method of allocation is through giving the public freedom of choice. Clearly here the British public had no alternative to the deficient service offered by the CSA, if competition in some form had existed one could argue that it might have been sufficient a catalyst to motivate change and improvement.

The other key principles of NPM, decentralisation and performance measurement were adopted extensively but seem to be ineffective in enabling the CSA to deliver upon its charter. A review of this issue, in relation to the CSA, seems to point to an inherent relationship between operational issues and policy making. As such the success of one relies heavily upon the other. The Policy/Provider divide is less of a separation and rather an entanglement of the two parts. The reason for this problem: an inappropriate and outdated accountability doctrine.

Several recent studies have indicated that the traditional British doctrine for ministerial accountability for their departments is inadequate to enable the service bodies to function effectively. The CSA has simply been a high profile example of this. The current approach doesn't sufficiently clarify the borders of accountability and responsibility for both the minister and the agency executives and thus the situation occurs where the rules of the traditional doctrine are ignored. In the case of CSA this was evident when the first chief executive accepted the blame for the failure of the agency whilst the minister hide behind the apparently blurred accountability system.

This blurring of the lines of accountability has also lead to problems of interference. The Chief executive of the agency in theory has had power to run the agency devolved to her, yet finds that the minister changes the policy upon which they are supposed to function whilst also setting unrealistic targets. It would also appear that much of the interference was as much to placate the media and public as it was about reform and improvement. "At the policy making stage, the unwisdom of rapid political action in response to and reliance upon public opinion emerges rather clearly," says Harlow (1999: 170).

Barberis (1998:468) concludes that whilst NPM is not responsible for the difference between the traditional accountability principles and reality, it has "nevertheless further exposed the accountability gap."

So where does the CSA go from here? The paper has referred to the work of Barberis 1998 as an example of theorisation trying to help determine a new more appropriate system of accountability. Could the CSA work through its problems without such changes? Well whilst one could argue that the use of New Public Management as a basis for the CSA has failed, evidence would seem to indicate that, with the only other notable exception of the prison service, 'Next-Step' agencies have functioned adequately using the NPM model. There may yet be redemption for the CSA; perhaps it has just taken a longer period of adjustment for this particular agency. Then again on a more sceptical note one could say that without serious changes in the accountability framework and the policy provision the CSA will never escape it's reputation for deficiency.

Notes

Barberis, P. (1998) 'The New Public Management and a New Accountability,' Public Administration, Vol. 76 pp. 451-470.

Harlow, C. (1999) 'Accountancy, New Public management and the Problems of the Child Support Agency,' Journal of Law and Society Vol. 26 (2) pp. 150-74.

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Page last updated: 11 December, 2002 © Copyright G Bates, D Hutchinson, T Robertson, A Wadsworth, R Watson 2002