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.