Welfare & Bureaucracy

December 16, 2008 at 11:23 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I’d urge anyone interested in the welfare white paper – and who has about 20 minutes to spare – to read this quite wonderful analysis by Paul Cotterill over at The Bickerstaffe Record. Paul makes a number of hugely important observations, particularly in relation to ensuring unemployed parents can access good quality childcare to help them meet their new obligations. As I’ve mentioned before, the government hasn’t yet removed the costs and inconveniences of childcare as impediments to working, and there is already evidence that impoverished familes are receiving poorer care than the more well-off. He also describes – and far better than I managed in this meagre, sleep-deprived offering – the problems with the proposed ‘Work for your benefit’ scheme, and why requiring people to participate for anything less than the minimum wage is simply unacceptable.

But the most important observation in this essay relates to the difference between policy formation and implementation:

Just writing a White Paper with policy prescriptions for ‘Adviser Flexibility’ doesn’t mean you’ll get ‘Adviser Flexibility’ in real life. In fact with the ‘welfare reforms’ now proposed there’s a real risk that, given the additional bureaucracies inevitably involved, mechanisms will evolve that produce less flexibility, more ‘processing’ (i.e. dehumanising) of clients. In the US at least front-line staff’s starting culture was one geared to just processing benefit claims with no great expectation of what might happen next; in the UK, the invasive New Public Management techniques of the last 25 years mean that front line staff in Job Centre Pluses already start from a more a negative standpoint, just as inclined to ‘process’ but to do so with more of a mind to benefit withdrawal.

All taken together, there is a huge risk that the whole plus side of the reform – and at policy-making level increased personalized support is seen as a plus – will be ignored in favour of the downside; this will be about pushing people into (for them) counterproductive ‘work related activity’ in order to meet the newly introduced range of targets (and Paul Gregg’s paper is quite clear about the need for performance targets and ‘detailed guidance’ (p 78)).

There is no mention of targets for the new reforms which relate, for example, to client satisfaction and life improvement; the targets will, as now, all be about driving down the claimant count, irrespective of the actual human cost to benefit-seekers and their families.

This is absolutely correct. It’s impossible these days to find an organisation in which working practices aren’t rationalised & computerised, particularly one with such a large bureaucratic belly as Job Centre Plus, and which has to deal with such a huge volume of ‘customers’. Methods of administration invariably restrict opportunites for agency and personalisation, and unless these are explicitly codified within the adviser’s working instructions, they threaten to be lost entirely. The consequence would be a process top-heavy with instructions and sanctions, but a little light on the equally important personal touch.

But I’m really only giving you the economy version. Go here to read the whole thing.

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