Friday, February 27, 2009

Council threatens elderly widow with eviction!

My father passed away on January 18th 2009, and since then we have been managing the settling of his affairs with more or less success.

Recently my mother has been receiving increasingly unpleasant letters from Bristol City Council suggesting she is in rent arrears. Calls to the Housing Office Rent Management Department, although handled sympathetically, seemed to have proven powerless to halt a computerised juggernaut which seemed set on evicting her for alleged non-payment of rent.

Needless to say, not a single rent payment has been missed in 53 years.

It reminded me of an excellent short story called "Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon R. Dickson, reprinted here, which I first read as a child. Its relevance has never gone away.

By reverse engineering my mother's experience, it would appear that Bristol City Council are running at least four separate computer systems in this functional area.

1. A database system which associates council houses and their tenants.

2. A billing system which processes direct debits from named tenants.

3. An accounts-receivable system which sends threatening letters and orchestrates a debt-recovery process, culminating in eviction.

4. A system which sends rent payment information details to tenants, which continues to this day to send information to my deceased father.

Bristol City Council were somewhat aware of Mr F. S. Seel's death, but this information has not progressed to system (4) above, and did not stop system (2) from continuing to extract rent via direct debit.

The Council were also able to process a change in tenancy, to add my mother to the tenant database. However, system (1) was not aware that my mother and father both occupied their council house, so the council were not able to associate the existing direct debit with the change in tenancy, and so finally registered my mother as not paying any rent. Hence the threats from system (3).

The latest stage in the saga is that they have promised to refund the overpayment on my father's account, and to send a direct debit form for my mother to complete for the new tenancy arrangement. We shall see if they are competent enough to get this done.

I have been in communications and IT for more than 25 years and this is a classic example of stovepipe systems architecture. We usually advise Enterprise Applications Integration via messaging middleware, short of introducing a root-and-branch SOA.

I wonder how much continuing distress as well as wasted time is caused by Bristol City Council's IT department failing to get the basics right. We were that far from taking this story to the newspapers, and it still hasn't ended.