Universal credit to ministers and none to bureaucrats?

Last September, I predicted that there would be problems implementing Universal Credit. To be honest, this was obvious to almost any observer so I am not crowing over the recent coverage. First, the pilot was curtailed and was to be run in only one location for new claimants in one town in the North West. Hardly a rigorous test of the programme in advance of it going live in central London and other cities. In recent days, the government’s Major Projects Authority (so much for the bonfire of the QUANGOs!) reported on progress and national coverage (well, BBC and the Guardian) have highlighted the problems the MPA identified in implementing Universal Credit. But looking at the material, it reveals some interesting detail. Universal Credit is rated Amber/Red. By contrast, the Work Programme gets a Green flag. I don’t recall that being an overwhelming success. Given coverage of the failings of A4E, among others, you might expect there to be some reservations about the sucess of this programme. Similarly, the Incapacity Benefit Reassessment is a success, despite widespread coverage of problems.

But then we realise the criteria against which the MPA judges success and failure are whether the projects stick to their timetable, stay within budgets and achieve anticipated savings. The MPA is unconcerned at the consequences of policy chanmges. Presumably (though, because it is ‘delivered’ by local government, there is no comment), the ‘bedroom tax’ is an outstanding success too. It was implemented on time and the cost savings have been achieved (at least for central government). Such a narow perspective on project management promises to assure us in some way that ministers have a grip on Whitehall bureaucracy and its histoy of project overruns and failures. But don’t question the policy. It couldn’t be that Universal Credit is foundering because of policy decisions. Only incompetent officials carry the can.

Long silence

Apologies for the lack of comment in recent months. The original purpose of this blog was as a forum for discussion with students on our programmes. Since we are in the process of redesigning our programmes, the blog has fallen by the wayside. But I hav been awoken by a recent story.

A Rolls Royce service

The British civil service was once compared to a Rolls Royce – comfortable, smooth, quiet, reassuringly expensive, reliable etc.  After Hillsborough and some of the snail-like handling of correspondence it has revealed (see my previous post), I was tempted to add that it was largely for the rich and rarely seen in the north.  But I restrained myself.

Recently, a Fast Streamer suggested to me that the best civil servants are to be found in London.  Only the duffers would work in the provinces.  The breathtaking arrogance and crass ignorance that he went on to display amused me at the time.  He worked for the Department of Transport.  I don’t suppose he was involved in the fiasco over the franchise for the West Coast mainline?  But I guess the Department of Transport wouldn’t know anything about trains.  They are used to a Rolls and why would they want to go to the provinces in any case?

Passing the buck

I am interested in the correspondence between central departments, between different branches of government and, over time, the way the sense of purpose changes.  I have seen the inside of government, the teams responsible for correspondence and dealing with the day-to-day.  It seemed impressive from the inside.  Looking on now, it is another world.  I refer you to one example: http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/repository/docs/CMS000003420001.pdf.  A whole episode of Yes Minister could be based on this correspondence.  There is an evidently angry MP corresponding with a series of indifferent civil servants.  Never mind that it concerns some of the 96 people who died at Hillsborough.

But, is this deliberate cover-up.  Or just Whitehall?  Would it happen today?

It couldn’t happen now…

I find it hard to know what to say about Hillsborough and the revelations in yesterday’s report.  That the main storyline is not a great surprise to many on Merseyside speaks volumes.  Yes, the scale was bigger and the detail of the report is impressive.  But the truth (the real truth, not that peddled by The Sun) was widely accepted.  The evident shock in ‘the establishment’ is something that I am more surprised by.

But the message today seems to be that it couldn’t happen again.  There was something particular about South Yorkshire police.  The 1980s was a different time…  Have they so easily forgotten phone hacking and other on-going investigations?  Do we really think the police give a complete, unedited and honest account in connection with deaths in custody etc?  Or did they look after their own in connection with, for example, Ian Tomlinson’s death?

In addition to respect for the persistence of the families and others, hats off also to the independent panel.  As well as experts in law, policing and medical science, there were archivists skilled in searching for and ordering information amongst other things.  As with the Kenyan case against the British Government, it is always amazing to me the extent of official records that are kept despite the clear desire to hide the truth.  Bureaucratic tendencies to retain information have, again, contributed to some progress towards justice.  Efforts to cut bureaucratic ‘waste and inefficiency’ forget the real value in careful record keeping.  Freeing the police from the need to keep detailed records or allowing them to cut corners (‘innovate’ in contemporary terms?) may mean that their natural tendency to protect their own will leave less of a paper trail in future.  And efforts to undermine the Freedom of Information Act, limited as it is, should also be a cause for concern.  Secrecy is also part of the problem.  Hillsborough is an extreme example, but all the elements are familiar and ever present.

Big Bang and the Universal Credit

The administration of social security benefits never sounds like an exciting topic.  And it is often simply characterised as a bureaucratic activity.  And to a degree it is and should be.  We do want to see all cases treat fairly and according to the law etc.  So much of it should be the routine application of rules and procedures in thousands of cases.  But social security also illustrates the weaknesses of rules and the simplistic understanding of bureaucratic processes.  And the recent coverage over the weekend of the progress on the implementation of Universal Credit, the new all encompassing benefit for those of working age, suggests we are going to see past errors played out all over again.

No set of rules will cover all eventualities.  There are always exceptions, odd cases and unforeseen combinations that don’t fit.  And the way questions are asked and format in which information is collected will affect outcomes.  The more that process of application is computerised and the more the applicant is engaged in the processing of their own claim via the internet, the more likelihood of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and mistakes.  While impersonal treatment may be a counter to bias, it does not always generate fairness.  I remember one claim form used to ask people something along the lines of: ‘if you don’t receive this financial assistance, will you go into residential care?’  Most replied ‘no’ to this – that was the last thing they wanted to happen.  But, as a result, they got no assistance despite other evidence of their need.

And then there is the IT.  The DSS, now DWP, has a long history of grand new systems that needed to be tweaked and worked around. To get the correct outcome, staff had to learn shortcuts and codes to bypass faulty elements of the programme.  Are the public to learn these “work-arounds” too?

And then there is the real world.  When I first worked in social security as a casual administrative assistant in Bristol, I recall one benefit recipient in particular.  She lived alone and was very vulnerable.  She struggled to manage her finances and she would often lose her keys etc.  The DSS office paid her benefit daily – and that included a visiting officer making payments over the weekend.  The office security guards (not G4S contractors but civil servants) had spare sets of keys for her flat.  If she didn’t come in for her payment, they went to check up on her.  Was this efficient administration?  No.  But it made sense on many other levels.  This is a sense that has no place in the new Universe IDS has in mind.

Universal Credit has been dreamt up by policy wonks, analysts, economists and statisticians in and around Whitehall.  I am sure that, according to their models, the benefit will work perfectly.  In the clean world of economic theory and people acting in their ‘rational self-interest’, it is probably a very neat and tidy solution to the rising costs of welfare.  But for the DWP to be proclaiming this as the ‘biggest shake up’ in social security since the war should fill us with dread.

Maude’s war on waste

The government’s drive for ‘efficiencies’ looks more like economies to me.  In announcing £5.5 billion of savings (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/francis-maude-reveals-further-savings-beat-expectations), some key examples are listed.  Cuts in consultants, marketing, a freeze on unnecessary recruitment and reductions in property costs are no surprise.  But this doesn’t necessarily represent an increase in efficiency.  The £500 million from bulk purchasing may be more like it.  But this is not radical stuff.  Indeed, it is so Yes Minister it is embarrassing.  And how much of it is the usual Whitehall slieght of hand?  How much is real savings and how much ‘nominal’?

Perhaps the radical changes, the mutuals and staff cooperatives, the Big Society and the promise of new technologies are bubbling up beneath the surface?  Perhaps the transformation of Whitehall is still to come?  But, at the moment, it looks much like the changes in local government.  Stop paying for stuff we can get away without in the short/medium term (consultants, training etc).  Try getting other stuff cheaper (bulk buying, some collaborative purchasing).  Stop recruiting.

Is anyone asking what the consequences of these decisions are?  Does Francis Maude know the impact of cuts?  Or does he believe there are no consequences of the decisions being taken?

Goodbye, Sir Humphrey?

The Cabinet Office is commissioning research to look at the way ministers, senior civil servants and political appointees function in other countries (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/looking-abroad-next-steps-civil-service-reform-programme).  The list includes countries that replace the senior ranks with every change of elected leadership.  This is already being interpreted as a threat to civil service neutrality and a victory for Steve Hilton who had been arguing for dramatic reductions in Whitehall before peddling off into the sunset.

But there is a serious point to be discussed.  For years, there have been complaints about the politicisation of the civil service.  Tony Benn and other Labour ministers in the 60s and 70s had the impression that civil servants were a conservative force at best, and a Conservative one on some occasions.  To get to the top under Thatcher, you needed to be ‘one of us’ or to be a can-do official.  Being cautious, balanced and neutral doesn’t win you friends amongst current ministers.  So, why not make the top ranks explicitly political appointments, as in the US and France?

The argument is that a neutral civil service has a particular value. But what is that?  Are we really saying that civil servants are objective, unbiased and impartial in some way?  Are they really so superhuman that they can dismiss from their minds anything other than the national interest or some other higher purpose?  Or should we be just a little more honest?  Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, was very clear that the upper reaches of the civil service was not the neutral force it claims – a recent rereading of ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ was very instructive.

And, if they are indeed so neutral and acting in pursuit of some lofty purpose, why are they so anxious that their advice is not open to us to read?  Why should they want to keep so much of their work exempt under the Freedom of Information Act?  Is their lobbying for secrecy not self-interested and indicative of their inability to be as neutral as they claim?

Happiness by Numbers

The publication this morning of the First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results (a catchy title no doubt tested by the Behavioural Insights Team for its impact on our levels of happiness) is cause for some amusement (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_272294.pdf).  While the results are presented in detail, the one thing not properly addressed in the material, or in any of the discussion of it so far, is ‘so what?’  What on earth is to be done with the ‘knowledge’ that people are happier in one part of the country than in others, or that you were more likely to have felt anxious yesterday if you classified yourself as Arab?  What are the policy options available?

But there is a worrying aspect to this.  Alongside the recent paper on the use of randomised controlled trials in policy making (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/TLA-1906126.pdf), there is the prospect of ‘happiness’ experiments.  Do policy initiatives affect the results next year?  Leave aside all the problems of attributing causation, there must be someone in Whitehall even now adding happiness into the great calculating machines that they run at the Treasury to model monetary and fiscal policy.

I have been reading a number of works recently that take an ethnographic approach to the study of the state and its works.  We can anticipate furious government activity, each department developing its own contribution to improving happiness unrelated to the activities of all other government departments.  These will all have conflicting implications and impacts.  And they will affect very little. Indeed, those coordinating the activities of the state will be us.  We will be left to cope and adapt as the frantic activity continues around us.  As Tess Lea at Sydney has recently suggested, if you want to see anarchy, watch the state and its bureaucracy in action.

Secrecy and Justice

In the last few days, a number of elderly Kenyans have taken their case against the British government to the High Court.  Against legal objections and despite problems accessing all the relevant records, justice might be done.  The records, it appears, were taken from Kenya at independence and deposited in the Foreign Office, alongside those from a number of other former colonies.  But the records are there and can be retrieved.

At the same time, we hear from the Information Commissioner that civil servants, long opposed to the Freedom of Information Act, might be using their private email addresses and other ways of avoiding records being kept of their exchanges.  Cabinet Secretaries, past and present, are reluctant to release documents to the Chilcott Inquiry on Iraq.  In short, a culture of secrecy persists in the corridors of power despite the political platforms of all major parties.

Whitehall, that paragon of good government!  Sometimes it stinks.