As you may have noticed nothing much works in the UK these days.
My last job in the public sector was part of the Child Support Agency rescue mission. An expensively assembled group brought together to try and fix the CSA, or at least get it off the front pages, including people from across banking and the public sector.
My role was commercial, trying to package up dysfunctional bits of the civil service to see if the private sector could do the work more efficiently. I realise that firms like Capita give outsourcing a bad name, but we did some good work.
One of the biggest contracts we let was clerical case management. The CSA over the years had implemented several computer systems, mostly with limited success. When the CSA was set up by the Major Government the legislation allowed for almost unlimited information to be taken into account when making an assessment. The weight of managing this information, and in particular managing changes to to assessments, caused the computer systems to break down. Cases would become “stuck” and have to be managed manually. A vast building off the M6 was full of outsourced workers managing child support cases with a pen and paper, filling cabinets full of paper. Just like the 1950s.
Recently we have had problems with HMRC. They owed one of my businesses a large VAT rebate, which they struggled to process. It turned out that there was a slight difference between the business name at Companies House, and the business name on the Bank Account, something as daft as the full stop at the end of LTD.
This had caused the processing to become stuck, and the work had been transferred to a clerical case managemet team, who were making changes manually, just like the team off the M6. Universal Credits had the same problem, the IT systems didn’t work and they were managing UC claims manually using excel spreadsheets.
The CSA was widely regarded as a failed organisation before we arrived, and we did get it off the front pages.
But the same problems that the CSA has are now replicated across multiple Government Departments. A routine change of address process in HMRC has a target date of 9 weeks to complete.
The deterioration of our public services has happened slowly with the discontinuity of Covid in the middle, and failures in DWP and HMRC are kept off the front pages by problems in the NHS and the Home Office, particularly the immigration directorate.
But HMRC and DWP are mission critical parts of the British state, that we need to operate to do business and carry out our lives. They are broken, in the same way the Child Support Agency was broken. The collapse of HMRC would cause investors to flee, bond yields to rise even higher, mortgages to become yet more expensive.
There is a realistic prospect that one or more Government Departments might simply stop functioning completely. If you think things are a mess now just wait if pensions don’t get paid.
That might seem like a far fetched idea, but when they introduced Universal Credits they didn’t set up the module which records UC payments for pension calculations. Which means that 100s of 1000s, maybe millions of people have a lower pensions entitlement than they should do.
We are muddling through, hoping that the NHS or a major Government Department doesn’t fail completely. A tragic position for a G7 country to find itself in.