FINANCIAL CONTROL INITIATIVE:
Delivering Data Integrity in the Benefits Agency's IT Systems
by: Tim Straker
Each working day the BA issues some 8 to 10 million instruments of payment (automated credit transfers, girocheques, order books and payable orders) for a range of over 20 different social security benefits such as Retirement Pension, Income Support, Child Benefit, Incapacity Benefit and Jobseekers' Allowance. The total amount of programme expenditure involved is £80-100 billion a year - roughly 10 percent of UK Gross Domestic Product.
|Each benefit runs on its own computer system, of which payment is only one aspect. In the case of the main benefits the systems have to be accessible from any of the BA's more than 400 local offices throughout England, Scotland and Wales. These systems run on some 30 or so ICL mainframe computers distributed around three Service Delivery Centres (SDCs) located at Livingston (Scotland), Blackpool (Lancashire) and Washington (Tyne & Wear). Each benefit system can be divided into anything up to 32 separate ‘services’ to facilitate distributed processing.
It used to be sufficient for government to account for money paid out - the old system of ‘cash accounting’. However, with the move to more generally accepted accounting principles (which the government calls Resource Accounting and Budgeting, or RAB), the BA introduced a new accounting system in 1995. This system, the Programme Accounting Computer System (or PACS), which is the largest accounting system in Europe, runs on an IBM mainframe located at one of the SDCs. It receives batches of accounting data at individual transaction level from each of the individual feeder benefit system ‘services’.
With such massive volumes of payment transactions being processed and accounted for, it had never been possible to reconcile the accounting data with the cash paid out, except by posting balancing entries to force a reconciliation. The sheer volume of transactions made analysis of the differences all but impossible and explanations elusive. The problem was one of data integrity and the Financial Control Initiative (FCI) was set up to resolve it.
The various feeder benefit systems were not designed from scratch to work as an integrated whole. They were developed at different times, replacing older systems or as new benefits such as Jobseekers’ Allowance were introduced, and have been amended over time to incorporate new and changed requirements or fix operational problems. They were not designed as accounting systems. Their role was to collect information, enabling a decision about an award of benefit to be made and payment made accordingly. Accounting, other than traditional cash accounting, was a later requirement and had to be ‘retro-fitted’ to these complex legacy systems. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the accounting data differed to an extent from what the benefit system had actually paid. Identifying the differences, correcting them, determining the root causes and ultimately eliminating them were daunting tasks, considered by many insiders to be impossible.
The Search for a Solution
Determined to overcome the problem, the Financial Strategy and Control Group within the BA’s Banking & Accountancy Branch established FCI early in 1999. The strategic vision of a ‘System Financial Controller’ for each system and a ‘Central Control Unit’ monitoring and co-ordinating their activities to ensure fully reconciled accounting data existed only as objectives stated on paper. They relied upon the skills of experienced freelance consultants to devise and develop the practical means of ensuring daily data integrity.
Delivering the vision of data integrity and fully reconciled accounting data called for a mixture of accounting and IT skills, a combination of strategic vision and planning with tactical attention to detail and a ‘can do’ attitude in the face of scepticism, bureaucratic red tape and the sheer scale of the problem.
Dubbing their assignment ‘Mission Impossible’, the consultants looked at a range of IT tools for comparing large files of data at transaction level. Among the options considered were Microsoft Access, Audit Command Language and programming bespoke reconciliation routines in COBOL. They settled on using ICL’s VME (Virtual Machine Environment) operating system utilities to develop and pilot reconciliation processes, which were subsequently automated using SCL (System Control Language).
This solution called for accessing ICL mainframes at the three SDCs via NOVOS*2000 running on PC terminals and a server gateway. Progress was hindered by the BA’s Millennium Operating Regime, basically a moratorium on any IT changes, including new network connections, between November 1999 and March 2000. During this time work could only proceed thanks to the loan of a suitable terminal that became available because of a staff member’s long term sickness.
The results were impressive. Starting with Income Support and Jobseekers’ Allowance, daily file matches were soon being carried out and differences listed at transaction level. These included payments with no corresponding accounting record and vice versa, and records with differing values. Armed with the knowledge of where accounting inaccuracies arose, it became possible for programmers to identify and begin to eliminate the root causes.
Once a generic reconciliation process had been developed for each method of payment, the task of carrying out daily reconciliations was handed over to BA staff, who were trained in the necessary skills and techniques. At this implementation stage a Civil Service team took over from the consultants who had developed and piloted the process.
Working to a System Financial Controller for each group of systems, trained operators will identify accounting differences on a full time basis and provide programme accounting staff with the information to correct them. The big picture is monitored and co-ordinated by a Central Control Unit within the Accounts Payable Control section of Banking & Accountancy Branch. The vision of being able to account for every penny of programme expenditure is rapidly becoming a reality.
This is an example of how the Civil Service can draw upon and benefit from the skills of private sector consultants. The consultants in this case were brought in to provide a mix of skills not readily available within the Department of Social Security. They did not replace Civil Servants but rather carried out work that BA staff were unable to. Once they had completed this task and transferred sufficient skills to Civil Servants, BA staff were able to take charge of delivering the products of the initiative.