Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid cleans up pensions data

Smarmy Consulting has suggested another purge on our pensions data. Again. Not a trustee meeting passes without it whinging on about the state of the data that it took over from Hugely Expensive Consulting, which used to administer our plan.

Confessions of a benefits manager

There isn’t a mail-out we send without Smarmy cautioning us that the addresses are incomplete, nor a valuation made without it saying the birth dates look to be inaccurate.

Our old administrators, Hugely Expensive Consulting, washed their hands of the issue. It says the data was perfectly good when it handed it over and that Smarmy’s system is notoriously flawed so it must be its fault. We, the client, are stuck in the middle paying for it either way. 

The first quarter does seem like a good time to do a data detox. You may wonder why we haven’t sorted out our data before. Well, we have tried, but each little data clean-up exercise costs us thousands in additional fees to Smarmy Consulting.

It is interesting to note that it is not really in its best interests to get to the bottom of our pension data issues, when a clean-up exercise every year or so is a nice little earner for it. It is also a handy excuse for any problems that arise in between.

Missing member addresses

One big area of concern is that many member addresses are missing. Obviously, we know where our current employees live (at least I hope we do), but deferred members, and even retirees, move on without telling us. Smarmy has a whole list of lost members, whose communications come back marked ‘not known at this address’.

It is tempting to leave them lost and thereby improve our funding position, but we are told that trustees need to make ‘reasonable’ attempts to find their pension members. I ask what constitutes ‘reasonable’? Do we need to advertise for them, asking ‘Would the real Mr Jones of South Wales please get in touch because it is in his best interests to do so?’ That would be fine for one or two names, but we have, rather embarrassingly, lost about 200 members.

Luckily, it seems help is at hand. There is a tracing firm that will perform our search for a few pounds per member. What does it do, I wonder? Does it have a dozen private investigators rushing round looking for the missing Mr Jones of South Wales? Actually, I suspect it does a quick digital search, which will only result in Mr Jones being found if we give them an accurate national insurance number and date of birth.

National insurance numbers

Scarily, some of our national insurance numbers are also missing and a chunk of our members appear to have been born in the year 9999. Still, if we pay the tracing company, we will have done our best and made a ‘reasonable attempt’.

Better still, it seems the cost can be charged to the pension fund itself, so I don’t need to worry about finance telling me off about department budgets again. The tracing cost will affect our deficit, but a few thousand is a mere speck compared with the overwhelmingly gargantuan size of our under-funding.

We also agree to pay Smarmy several thousand pounds to dig out the paper documentation to put right the worst data records. I resent this. Surely, this activity should have been part of the data integration process when it took over the administration. We paid it a fortune for that in the first place, and I am sure we have paid for a similar exercises in the meantime. Nice work if you can get it.

Expression of wish forms

While we are spring cleaning, we agree to let Smarmy send out another bunch of ‘expression of wish’ forms. Smarmy tells me we are still missing forms for a big proportion of members, and this is critical given recent tax changes.

I don’t really get that logic; it is important to the beneficiary whether or not they will pay tax on it. It can get quite complicated for the trustees to sort out when one of our members dies, especially when there are dependent children. We’ve had cases where the form nominated a family that the current wife and official next of kin had never even heard of. Awkward.

Trustees have to take the form into account, but they make take other action if it seems appropriate. We’ve had lots of forms where the apportioned funds add up to more than 100%. Is it that our staff are particularly bad at adding up, or do they think we will actually shell out more than the pot without noticing?

I am disappointed Smarmy didn’t catch that sort of thing when it came in. Or maybe that was when the forms used to be sent to me. Hmm. Perhaps I’ll keep quiet on that.

Checking pensioners are alive

The other big data clean-up is checking for dead people. Yes, really. Periodically, we need to write to our pensioners and check they are still alive, although it is written rather more diplomatically.

If they don’t respond, there is a strong chance they have died, but we keep writing for a while to make sure before we stop their payments. Last time, we found about six people who had been in receipt of pensions long after they passed away. Sometimes, sons and daughters or spouses (perhaps those who know they are not on the expression-of-wish form) have a vested interest in letting us think the retiree is still alive, especially if there is a fat payment being made into their account each month.

It has to be done, but I hate to think of our retirees sitting quietly at home minding their own business, when a letter from Smarmy Consulting arrives asking them to confirm they are still alive. What, really? Still alive? That must seem like the grim reaper is near.  

Working in benefits can be quite depressing sometimes.

Next time…Candid makes a claim.