Public Services Management: Balancing the welfare book: Ray Mgadzah talks to Ros Hepplewhite, head of the new Child Support Agency, about her approach

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AMATEUR psychoanalysts, confounded by the zeal and clinical efficiency with which Ros Hepplewhite, chief executive of the Child Support Agency (CSA), tackles and defends her controversial brief, may focus on the fact that her own father left home and never paid child maintenance.

Now Ms Hepplewhite resolutely tracks down absent parents, assesses their finances and makes them pay maintenance, assisted by a formula which is expected to double many child support payouts. She has spent pounds 125m to set up a national agency which, when fully operational, will have 5,000 staff working out of six regional CSA centres and 450 social security offices.

Ms Hepplewhite, who forged a career in the National Health Service and mental health charities, including a spell as director of the National Association for Mental Health (Mind), before becoming the CSA's first chief executive, reckons her enthusiasm for her job has nothing to do with personal psychological baggage. 'What persuaded me to take this job was the management task. My father was never on the scene but I don't think it was a factor. I certainly don't feel any crusade for one-parent families,' she says.

Her background, she concedes, helps her to empathise with CSA clients who need child support. Another advantage is that she is accustomed to being in the thick of controversial public policy initiatives, having previously implemented care in the community for mental health patients during a spell in charge of psychiatric services in Brighton.

Ms Hepplewhite reckons it was the challenge of setting up an agency charged with overhauling sensitive aspects of family welfare policy, under the 1992 Child Support Act, that enticed her to the CSA. Recent fierce debate over the social and financial costs of the growth in single-parent families, and controversy surrounding the new agency's brief, have not diminished her enthusiasm for the task.

The chance of joining and moulding a greenfield operation added to the attraction of the CSA job when ardent headhunters called. Ms Hepplewhite took charge before the agency opened last April. She installed its management board, masterminded the recruitment of other staff (of whom 60 per cent are expected to come from outside the civil service), set up regional offices and supervised the installation of a pounds 100m computer system.

She has also had to explain the CSA's role to a public of which large sections have been deeply suspicious of the agency. 'We have had to get it across to people that the CSA is not an interfering organisation that is one more government hassle. It's an organisation that is taking a considerable amount of hassle out of child support,' Ms Hepplewhite says.

'We are essentially interested in the financial circumstances of the parent, not their personal circumstances. The CSA is not interested in why a relationship broke up or if it ever existed.'

Ms Hepplewhite is fully behind CSA policy and says her task is to ensure public support is not jeopardised by its poor implementation. She reckons a project management approach to running the agency will maximise efficiency. 'I have always run businesses in a project management mode. Many general managers see themselves as running steady-state organisations. They are constantly looking for efficiencies within a stable core.'

Not her: she has a four-year programme for the CSA. 'I have always seen organisations as completely dynamic, not as steady-state. I am very risk-orientated. I see things in terms of project management rather than general management. My approach has always been that we have to deliver X by Y' This, Ms Hepplewhite says, is how she revamped Brighton's psychiatric services.

She expects her projectcentred approach to reverse a decade-long trend in which the number of lone parents receiving maintenance has dropped from a half to a third. 'In the past maintenance was assessed, but whether it was paid or not was very much a matter for individuals to sort out among themselves,' she says.

This will now change. Ms Hepplewhite wants the CSA to offer clients a range of services which will ensure that those entitled to child support will receive the amount which they are due, within specified periods, thereby alleviating hardship, and enabling many to cease qualifying for child welfare benefits.

The Department of Social Security, in which the CSA is one of six recently established agencies, has set some rigorous targets which Ms Hepplewhite must ensure the CSA meets. One benchmark is that the agency must deliver savings of pounds 530m by enforcing child support payments which reduce the number of single parents who qualify for income support.

Ms Hepplewhite reckons this target will be met, as will DSS requirements that maintenance must be arranged for at least 60 per cent of those who contact the CSA and that 65 per cent of the agency's clients must be satisfied with the service provided, in the spirit of the Citizen's Charter.

But other key efficiency goals, covering important CSA functions such as the maximum length of time it must take to process a case, or how long clients can expect to wait before an application for child support is heard, have yet to be fixed.

'We will not set ourselves those sorts of standards until we have been running for a year. By then we will have data to base them on,' Ms Hepplewhite says. But CSA regional operational directors, of whom there are three, have internal targets for each of two regional centres and a field network in their charge.

A resources director, in charge of finance and personnel, completes the CSA board. 'Resource management is absolutely the bread and butter of what we do. I was very keen not to have a finance director who tends to be strong within the organisation, dealing with cashflow while other directors relate to resources,' Ms Hepplewhite says.

Staff have been organised on a professional case-worker basis. Ms Hepplewhite has set a lot of emphasis on attracting people with strong interpersonal skills, good communicators adept at dealing with clients as required: by telephone, by post or face to face.

Typical job applicants (there are still some vacancies) are educated to at least A-level standard. They have about three years' work experience in the private or public sector. Their task will be to deal with an expected 3 million child benefit assessments each year once the CSA is fully operational. Over 50,000 cases are already being processed.

A management information system retrieves 165 different bits of information from maintenance assessment and operational accounting software systems. This includes details of how many cases are being assessed, what stage of the process has been reached and how CSA staff have been deployed.

'It's immensely important that we have very responsive management data,' Ms Hepplewhite says. 'We have to look at the management information. It does not end up in the bin as happens with other organisations.' Clients are promised speedy reassessment of payments after changes in their own or the absent partner's circumstances.

Ms Hepplewhite draws an analogy from mental health services to explain how she expects the CSA to be judged. 'Ask anybody who is in community care to see if they would want to be back in a mental hospital. I don't think there will be any takers,' she says. 'If someone claiming child maintenance says they would rather have gone to court than come to us then we will not be getting it right.'

(Photograph omitted)