The Department for Work and Pensions should not make any staff cuts until it is sure its new IT systems improve performance, a key government advisory board has warned.
Two weeks ago officials at the DWP’s Child Support Agency told a committee of MPs that planned job reductions would go ahead despite uncertainty about whether the new systems would be successfully deployed.
Earlier this year chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to remove 100,000 civil servants from the government payroll as part of a drive for public sector efficiency.
But in its annual report the Social Services Advisory Committee warned the DWP not to assume that new IT systems would allow it to cope with fewer staff.
"Although detailed plans have not yet been made public, we are concerned that the reductions are based on the presumption that IT improvements and benefits and procedures simplifications will enable the department to provide customer service continuity and improvement with many fewer members of staff," the report said.
"In our view, it would be much less risky to have any reduction in staff numbers following a successful roll-out of new systems and processes. From what we have seen from our visits, there is currently little slack in the system and a fair number of pressure points, especially within the more complex areas of benefits decision-making and assessment."
The DWP has major problems with IT projects, including the tax credit system. In August 2003, the department estimated the level of overpayments awarded under the old tax credit schemes as between 10% and 14% by value, or £510m to £710m over the full year because of errors in the system.
The advisory board also criticised the complexity of the social security system and the IT systems that supported it.
"The complexity is both driven by, and drives, the IT problems that the department faces," the report said. "While there have been improvements during the last decade, the department probably remains as far behind the outside world in its systems as it ever was."