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John Seddon on Universal Credit

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment

UC in the news

 

I know, I know, we’ve heard enough about the Universal Credit here and elsewhere. But as I write this newsletter Iain Duncan Smith is being held to account – again – in parliament. His recent announcements regarding delays in implementation (resetting the programme in his parlance) have meant he has been all over the media; and if he is saying anything new it is his emphasis on the economic benefits of the programme.

 

Duncan Smith claims boldly that UC will bring £38bn in economic benefit over 12 years. It’s a big number. But when you dig down you learn that 38% of these savings are to come from fewer overpayments and increases in employment, while the bigger savings – 68% – will come from the economic benefits to claimants. You might want to read that again.

 

Leaving aside my usual argument that the delivery mechanism will fail, producing high levels of failure demand and catastrophic effects on peoples’ lives, this ‘benefit analysis’ is one shocking guess.

 

Overpayments occur because successive governments have industrialised tax and benefits services; no longer do claimants have a relationship with people who administer credits and benefits; many of the errors are down to systemic failures in administration: badly designed services, which, for example, take so long that peoples’ circumstances change during processing and ‘back offices’ that apply rules (instead of meeting people) which fail to take account of variety, and some are due to the difficulty people have accessing services. In fact underpayments are as big a problem as overpayments, but Duncan Smith doesn’t mention that. Although he doesn’t say so I think Duncan Smith wants us to believe we have overpayments because people are naughty (‘scroungers’). There may be a few, but an IT system is the least efficacious way to catch them.

 

Does Duncan Smith have a magic wand that will conjure up jobs? Of course he doesn’t, but he does have a lever: he can make the pips squeak for unemployed people. During his evidence to the Select Committee Duncan Smith was arrogant and dismissive to committee members who had been petitioned by whistleblowers in his department. He said he didn’t recognise what members described as the pressures put on Job Centre staff to put people into sanctions.

 

In case you doubt the probability that his department is making life harder for people, see this research reported by a campaigner. It describes how ‘statistical norms’ become targets in the contracts for assessing the need for benefits:

http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/type/pdfs/how-norms-become-targets.html

You can’t argue with Duncan Smiths assertion that having people return to work would create economic value for society. But is making their pips squeak the right method? For many people unemployment is merely one issue in their lives. Our ‘locality’ work shows that peoples’ needs have to be understood in context. UC will only work to prevent such a ‘joined up’ perspective, serving as it does to treat only one issue (money), with methods that can only be described as rules and coercion.

 

Duncan Smith’s main policy objective is to incentivise being in work. It ought to be to help people get their lives back on the tracks. When you provide such a person-centred joined-up service you deal with the credit and benefit issues as just one (usually minor) hurdle – often one which exemplifies a failure of the current system to meet legitimate needs. Helping people get their lives back on track actually delivers the types of savings Duncan Smith is arguing for and much more besides; the fall in demand means lees consumption of resources in all public services, saving eye-watering amounts of taxpayer cash.

 

As regular readers know, I offered Duncan Smith an insurance policy: a human service to deliver UC face-to-face. Our locality work has shown this should better be thought of as a human service to help people get their lives back on track.

 

The differences between the Vanguard Method in locality working and Duncan Smiths plans are profound: The Vanguard Method (tVM) is human, UC is a computer, tVM is based on flow thinking, UC is scale thinking, tVM absorbs variety, UC fails to through rules and standardisation, tVM is evidence-based (it has already delivered), UC is speculative,

tVM is cheap as chips, UC is… not!

 

Duncan Smith soldiers on. He thinks appointing a new leader, Howard Shiplee, who, he kept reminding the committee members, delivered the Olympic project – as thought that qualifies him to deliver UC – will do it. But committee members watched as Shiplee took a different view on ‘digital by default’ and, although declaring himself a layman on IT systems, said the IT will work because it is going to be using the cloud. Cloud cuckoo land, methinks. He and Duncan Smith argue that despite write-offs UC now has a £150m software ‘asset’. This asset is a cost. No one asked why software should cost as much as that. Shiplee thinks it’s sensible to get UC working for ‘simple’ cases first – I would say work on the highest frequency demands first. Asked what percentage of UC claimants are ‘complex’ Lord Freud didn’t know, but talked about arrangements with local authorities to mop up failure demand (my words). So still no knowledge of demand.

 

If you want to watch Duncan Smith et al act out this train crash in boringly slow time it is here:http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14420.

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