Scottish agency scraps multi-billion spreadsheets workaround
It's not just the likes of you and I that make do with computer "workarounds", using outdated software to handle bigger and bigger tasks it was never designed to handle: a Scottish tale involving billions of pounds and some Excel spreadsheets shows even big public bodies are just as likely to fall into bad habits.
But it's a tale with a happy ending: the Scottish Public Pensions Agency (SPPA) told UKAuthority.com this week it has shifted its contribution accounting from ordinary office spreadsheets to a dedicated system for the first time, boosting the accuracy and flexibility of its work.
The SPPA, an executive agency of the Scottish Government, employs around 230 people to administer the NHS and teachers' pension schemes in Scotland and regulate the local government, police and fire pension schemes administered by Scottish local authorities.
Annual pension contributions receipts exceed £1.5 billion a year, with around 1,200 public sector employers making monthly payments on behalf of their employees to the agency, for onward payment to the Treasury for management.
"We had been using Excel spreadsheets for some years, and they were starting to fall to pieces - it was completely the wrong system to be using to collect £1.5bn of pension contributions," said Mark Cockburn, SPPA programme finance manager.
"The spreadsheets worked, they gave reasonably accurate information, but it was getting to the point where we had rogue cells, and we had been having difficulties reconciling bank statements to our income."
After a tender process in which three serious contenders emerged, the agency chose a package from enterprise software firm Epicor to collate payment information. Around 80% of transactions are now processed automatically, improving visibility of all transactions. The upgrade has meant the agency can be more flexible in its dealings with other bodies such as banks, allowing it to manage situations such as a change of bank accounts which would have been virtually impossible before.
The moral of the story? Be careful how your projects grow, says Cockburn. Public bodies in the past have been guilty of underestimating the scale of the task they will end up asking their IT systems to perform: just like you and I.