IT systems at the government’s Jobcentre Plus agency lack the “basic functionality that would be expected in a modern office”, MPs have warned.
The warning comes in a report by the powerful Commons public accounts committee on the agency’s use of personal advisers to help unemployed people find jobs. It notes that the advisors spend 20% less time in face to face contact with clients than staff at similar agencies elsewhere.
“The productivity of personal advisers is affected by slow or problematic IT, with nearly half of advisers experiencing delays daily,” the report says.
“Many of the shortcomings in the IT system are simple but nevertheless irritating for staff and reduce their efficiency, for example, by requiring them to re-key identical information for every new
customer or by making it hard to print out information they need.”
Launching the report, committee chair Edward Leigh MP said: “It’s up to Jobcentre Plus to give advisers the kind of working environment and support facilities (including an IT system that makes life easier not harder) to enable them to increase their face-to-face time with customers.”
The MPs recognised that changing IT systems can be costly, but their report says that given the sum paid by the Department of Work and Pensions – Jobcentre Plus’s parent body – to IT supplier EDS, “it should press for simple improvements in order to help save adviser time”.
“IT systems can be slow and cumbersome and some parts do not have basic functionality that would be expected in a modern office.” the report says, citing findings from the National Audit Office that the Jobcentre Plus IT system “ran slowly 10 times a week”.
Advisers were also forced to spend time completing paperwork and retyping information that cannot be copied from one part of the system to another, the MPs’ report says.
During the committee’s inquiry, Richard Bacon MP challenged Jobcentre Plus chief executive Lesley Strathie, saying: “We happen to know that EDS is making a profit margin of 30% on its work with DWP. You might have thought that for a 30% profit margin you could get cut and paste thrown in, would you not? Why is this still coming up after we first heard about this problem several years ago?”
Ms Strathie told the MPs: “We are going through a technology refresh at the moment which primarily will allow our advisers to open several windows at the same time in a much more user friendly manner. That is probably the briefest way of answering your question.”
Jobcentre Plus is still reorganising its systems after the collapse of its £143m benefit process replacement programme (BPRP) last year. In January, Strathie told the Commons work and pensions committee that nearly half the value of the abandoned scheme was set to be written off, describing the collapse as the agency’s “biggest single failure”.
The project was axed because of doubts that it could ever be implemented, while the introduction of a new employment and support allowance (ESA) in the 2007 Welfare Reform Act also required the programme to be refocused.
But earlier this week, ministers admitted that the DWP had not yet begun to adapt its IT systems to prepare for the implementation of the ESA in October 2008.
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