The Irish Department of Social Protection is clamping down on people with false beards

There are times when the surreal breaks through the curtain to engulf our dull grey world, and a note from Ireland gives me the sense that another such moment is upon us.  A new fraud initiative based on facial identification promises to cut off the presumably lucrative trade in disguises and false beards.  According to the Irish Independent, the minister for Social Protection has reassured an apprehensive public that “Welfare cheats using make-up and fake beards to get benefits won’t beat the ID software.”  That must be a relief.  I do not know how many cases there have been of theatrical imposture undermining the integrity of Irish benefits, but given the expense of introducing such a system I am sure the threat must have been substantial.

New research: listening to social security officers

For the last three months, I’ve been working with Helen Flanagan of PCS to listen to the voices of social security officers about the social security system.  PCS is the civil service union representing people working for the DWP, HMRC and others.  Helen’s explanation of the work can be seen here, but it will be mid-May before we’re able to publish the findings in detail.  Yesterday’s meeting made liberal use of the things said by DWP officers, in three contexts: a pamphlet issued by PCS on the Future of Social Security in Scotland, a film by Jennifer Jones, and initial findings from our report – we still have statements from fifty or more people to process.

This is from Helen’s summary.

  • Over 200 staff have participated so far, in their own time, from a range of DWP workplaces in Scotland.
  • Discussions were not limited to the devolved powers, we wanted input on policy, structure, working conditions, the experience of service uses, and what goes wrong with service delivery.
  • What we have with DWP is a system in chaos: the constant change and reorganisation of work, with inadequate staffing levels, poor training and failing off-the-shelf IT systems.
  • What we have also found is a real desire from staff in DWP to be able to serve people better, and for a system that treats those applying for help with humanity.

And, although I can’t really do justice to the range of issues, or the sincerity of people’s voices, in a short soundbite, let me pick out a couple of things that people have told us:

Really senior leaders are saying that we’ve never gone through the scale of these changes, but then on the other hand, things are just pushed through without planning. They expect staff to be ‘calm amongst the madness’, but then staff are then  hit about the head by management if they don’t adapt to the changes properly.

Segmentation plays a big part in bad service. Cases bounce about. It’s really difficult to embed with it or own it yourself. You can’t take ownership of anything.

The current robotic system fails to take much notice of the human factor and the fact we are dealing with real people

Morale is appalling. The deskilling that goes on in this place is appalling. I … was no more skilled than anyone else when I came in. All the changes that have come in over that time, I’ve had skills and training, but they’ve picked away at all that specialisation and skill, so you’re demoralised and run down. You have to put you in menial tasks and deal with small stuff rather than deal with proper work.

P.S: This was my 800th posting on the blog.

 

Benefit administration: some lessons from the United States

The UK may have some claim to distinction in its efforts to transform the benefits system, but we are not alone.  In the United States, revisions to health care have been taken as a stimulus to States to introduce new computer systems that will solve all the problems, typically covering Medicaid (health care for people on low incomes), food stamps and other benefits such as help with maternity.  Kentucky was early off the blocks: they hired Deloitte Consulting to introduce a new system.  50,000 people suffered ‘massive disruption.’  The Kentucky Courier-Journal reported:

“State workers, bewildered by the complicated new Benefind system, find themselves obstructed from helping many clients by errors, glitches and programming flaws.”

When Deloitte moved on to their next big contract with Rhode Island, covering 30,000 people a month, they were determined not to repeat the same mistakes.  A spokeswoman explained to the Providence Journal in Rhode Island:

“The design, development, testing and implementation of this new system is unique to Rhode Island and the people we serve. Kentucky used a different approach on all of these things.”

Instead, they found new ones to make. The Governor of Rhode Island complained that

“We paid them a lot of money, we didn’t get what we paid for. And they represented to us that it was in much better shape than in fact it was: defective functionality, incomplete interfaces, engines that still aren’t working.”

The formal  Assessment of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project  (it’s quite short, and worth reading) reports that

  • the IT system was not functioning properly
  • despite reassurances from the contractor, the system was not ready to go live when it did
  • too much was taken on trust because of the contractor’s experience in industry
  • staff had not been properly trained
  • “Basic user functionality and important interfaces … have significant defects or have been deferred, requiring extensive manual workaround processes”
  • benefits were not processed when they should be, and not withdrawn when entitlement had ceased; there were “errors in eligibility determination, benefits issuance, and
    provider payments”.

To those engaged in Universal Credit, it all looks eerily familiar.

Nothing daunted, Deloitte is now engaged in an even bigger project, providing a new system for income testing and assessment for the state of Georgia, expected to cover three million people.  A spokeswoman for Georgia’s Department of Human Services has reassured Georgia Health News that “We had the benefit of watching other states.”   As do we.

Arguments for welfare

Arguments for welfareI’ve received today the copies of my new book, Arguments for Welfare.  It’s a short book at 117 pages, published by Rowman and Littlefield at the hefty price of £19.95.  From the cover:

This book makes the case for the welfare state. Nearly every government in the developed world offers some form of social protection, and measures to improve the social and economic well-being of its citizens. However, the provision of welfare is under attack. The critics argue that welfare states are illegitimate, that things are best left to the market, and that welfare has bad effects on the people who receive it. If we need to be reminded why we ought to have welfare, it is because so many people have come think that we should not. Arguments for Welfare is a short, accessible guide to the arguments. Looking at the common ideas and reoccurring traits of welfare policy across the world it discusses: the meaning of the ‘Welfare State’, the moral basis of social policy, the limits of markets, public service provision and the role of government.   With examples from around the world, the book explains why social welfare services should be provided and explores how the principles are applied. Most importantly, it argues for the welfare state’s continued value to society.

 

John Slater explains the thinking behind the project management of Universal Credit

John Slater has been responsible for a series of Freedom of Information requests about the Universal Credit fiasco.  Yesterday he sent me a copy of the project management plan  introduced by Howard Shiplee, who was responsible for the development of Universal Credit from May 2013 until his departure, following illness, in September 2014.  Shiplee had previously been responsible for building construction for the 2012 Olympic Games.

I was puzzled by the plan, and wrote back to John:

I’m baffled – I can see no relationship between the steps to be taken and the design of a social security system. It looks more like a plan for building a McDonalds outlet, where all the groundwork’s laid and you know exactly what you want to do, so it’s all about delegating tasks. … I think you’re a project manager, John – – can you explain it to me?

I found John’s response so marvellously clear and helpful that I asked him if I could share it on the blog.  Here it is.

“Hi Paul,

You are right my background is programme and project management (my first degree was IT so I understand that aspect as well). You aren’t far off with your McDonalds analogy.

The plan is a classic case of an organisation focusing on the IT side of a major change programme. UC is one of the biggest change programme ever undertaken and nothing I’ve ever seen produced by the DWP reflects this.

The 100 day plan is a classic example of people that have been on a training course (e.g. Prince2 or Management Successful Programmes) but have never done the job for real. If you look down the left hand side of the ‘plan’ you’ll see the following headings:

  1. Key dates & decisions
  2. BT – Business (I suspect BT means business transformation)
  3. BT – Service Design & Build (I suspect BT means business transformation)
  4. BT Interfaces (I suspect BT means business transformation)
  5. Pathfinder Day 2
  6. Programme Approach
  7. HR
  8. Finance
  9. Assurance
  10. Security
  11. Comms (Communications)
  12. Stakeholder
  13. Supplier

With the exception of point 1 these are typically referred to a work streams. The idea is that each of the workstreams goes along their merry way cooperating with each other to deliver the programme. The reality of this approach with any complex programme is that it always goes horribly wrong.

If you look at points 2 to 5 then it is utterly focused on the IT. The plan looks like something to produce a software product of some sort. There is no mention of culture change, process engineering (this should be done before any software is produced) and the biggest issue of all people! This covers the claimants, DWP employees, Council Employees, Welfare Advisors and so on. They are just expected to magically learn and make it work. The trouble is human beings don’t work that way.

Part of the issue is that the DWP employees working on UC at the time hadn’t ever done anything like this before so didn’t have a clue. The put people in roles (e.g. programme manager, programme office manager etc) but they hadn’t done it before and had just been sent on a training course.

I’ve been doing this stuff for 30 years and I would have struggled to get UC up and running (and I’m very good at this aspect of complex programmes). Bringing in someone like Howard Shiplee was always going to fail. I’ve run programmes involving a lot of construction and it’s a different world and a totally different mindset. I suspect if you looked at the approach used for construction during the London Olympic build it wouldn’t look dissimilar to this plan. With construction the focus is generally on design and then build (known as D&B). The key factor is the supply chain and can the main contractor get the materials and people on site on time and in the right order. If you look at the plan again I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see the left hand side of the dark vertical as ‘design’ and the right hand side as ‘build’. This is what Howard Shiplee understood and it was so deeply ingrained I doubt he could have done anything else.

In respect of the pathfinder system released at Wigan it was a cobbled together lobotomised version of the IT that would ultimately be required for the complete UC. At this stage of the programme IDS knew the IT was fundamentally flawed, hence the talk of large sums being written off at the time. He also knew that they had to start over again but couldn’t admit that as it would be politically disastrous. Therefore, they rolled out the lobotomised version that only covered a small subset of people claiming JSA and claimed success. While this version was being rolled out painfully slowly the DWP was working desperately to produce a brain new IT system that ultimately will be the UC IT System.

Personally I think the new IT system will also fail. The methodology (Agile) as it’s been used by the DWP means that too much has been done in isolation. The system is going to be extremely complex and as bugs appear I’m not convinced the DWP will be able to find out the cause and then develop a solution that doesn’t result and another problem.

Kind Regards

John”

 

Brexit: The opposition still hasn’t got it. Trade is not the main issue. Our social rights are.

According to the Guardian, Labour will tomorrow announce a ‘tough’ new position on Brexit, insisting on the “exact same benefits” for trade and commerce.  They won’t get that, because EU negotiators have already made it clear that we can’t have membership of the single market without respecting the four freedoms.   Leaving that aside, however, the usual shopping list – trade, security, the economy – misses the point.

There have been demonstrations over the weekend.  They’re not about tariffs. They’re about movement, contact, travel, education, work and family life.  The loss of European citizenship means that you won’t have the right to live or work across Europe without a permit, to study where you will, or to marry a European with the assurance that you’ll be able to live together.  And that directly and immediately affects the lives of millions of people – not just the 4 million already identified by Michel Barnier (that is, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU), but anyone in a mixed family, and anyone who might be. People like me; quite possibly, people like you.

Before the referendum, I tried to flag the issue when it wasn’t on the agenda; since the referendum, I’ve raised petitions on Change.org and in the European Parliament.  This is about the right to live in Europe.  We were told that right was fundamental, not just to what the European Union was all about, but to us; and for many of us, it is.

Update, 6th April.  I didn’t know it when I wrote this, but a legal case on this point has been lodged in the Republic of Ireland by Jolyon Maugham, an English QC.  Maugham’s case is largely about the timing and import of the Article 50 notice, and that’s been covered in the press; but the other part is about the legal status of UK citizens as citizens of the European Union.  More to come. 

The no detriment principle rears its head again

In several pieces land presentations last year I pointed to the implications of the ‘no detriment’ principle agreed by the Smith Commission, which means that the Scottish Government will bear the costs of changing policies that otherwise would be suffered by the UK government.  In January I gave an example of this: HMRC has charged the Scottish Government for the cost of not doing anything about stamp duty.  Now I read this, in a report published by Audit Scotland today:

56. DWP has adjusted its systems and guidance to accommodate the introduction of the SRIT (Scottish Rate of Income Tax). It estimates this will cost £1.7 million. DWP charged  the Scottish Government £870,000 for this work in 2015/16, and expects further costs in 2016/17.

Yes: that’s a bill for changing its guidance.  Presumably based on average cost rather than marginal cost, because there’s no marginal cost in adding detail to routine updates of guidance.   The principle  is important, because when it comes to big changes – such as introducing new disability benefits – the DWP is going to follow through with billing for changes throughout the system, and the costs are likely to be prohibitive.  How would the British government respond if they get a bundle of equivalent bills from the EU – the cost of removing references to 28 countries from leaflets, or changing address books?  They really need to start rethinking their approach to transferring responsibilities.

Why the Bible disapproves of Obamacare and suchlike

I’m always slightly nonplussed by the postures of the American right, and one of the items flagged on on my regular alerts took me into a different world: an article in Conservative Review entitled, Is God in favor of a welfare state?  First, I should say something about Conservative Review.  The positions  they adopt are not what you’d get from an academic book on Conservatism; they advocate a confection of Tea Party, Republicanism and neoliberal ideas, such as

  • “Americans should be free to conduct business free from government intervention or control.”
  • “Congress should work to devolve federal spending and control of education to the state level.”
  • “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
  • “Americans must be allowed to purchase health insurance on a free and open market.”

The article on God’s view of the welfare state talks a fair bit about the Bible.  It argues:

you cannot make a valid argument that God supports a welfare state, redistribution scheme imposed by a secular government without either distorting, or outright ignoring, His Word.

I’m grateful for the correction.  I might otherwise have been confused, for example, by the suggestion that the Bible told us to protect the needy.

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide to thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in the land. (Deut 15:11)

I’m not a Christian myself, but Christians seem to be pretty hot on redistribution. The early Christians went so far as to hold property in common:

And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul. Neither did any one say that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but all things were common unto them. (Acts 4:32)

Admittedly, on the strict construction of the words, the Bible doesn’t say anything about the welfare state.  It doesn’t say much about modern statecraft, sewers or telecommunications either. But it does say quite a lot about moral responsibility and social organisation – rather more, as it happens, than it has to say about the Creation, which should tell you something about God’s priorities.

Many religions have developed strong communal institutions founded on that.   Jews have formal mechanisms for the management and distribution of charity; Lutherans support the principle of a common chest; Catholics teach the central value of solidarity; Islam has zakat.  Apparently they’re all wrong.

There is absolutely no wealth redistribution, coerced and implemented by the state, either advocated or modeled anywhere in the Bible.

That contention is backed up by the claim that the organisation of biblical Israel was entirely theocratic and ordained by God, so that it doesn’t count as advocating or modelling a system.   I’m not sure I follow the reasoning there.  Besides, it wasn’t either exclusively theocratic, or ordained by God: God expressed his dislike of the people’s request to install a king,  but decided that the issue was up to them (1 Samuel 8).  Absolutely no wealth redistribution?  Try the Jubilee (Leviticus 25), when debts and claims were cancelled and people in servitude were freed.  Nothing in a premodern society compromised liberty as fundamentally as debt.  That’s coupled with the injunction not to oppress each other in trade (Lev 25:14)   No coercion of resources by the state?  The Jewish tradition was that every nation had a duty, commanded of Noah, to establish a system of laws, and understood that people would have to comply with it – an important doctrine for a people with the experience of subjection or exile.  Jesus, who would have known that tradition, was more direct about it:

[They asked] Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  … And Jesus, answering, said ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s …’  (Mark 12:14,17)

But perhaps I’m reading the wrong sort of Bible.

The nature of a hate crime: Google thinks that incitement to racial hatred passes its tests

In the Home Affairs Committee last week, a baffled Yvette Cooper politely and repeatedly asked Peter Barron, a spokesman for Google in Europe, ‘In  what  circumstances  is “Jews  admit  organising  white  genocide” not  a statement of hate speech? ‘  The response from Google was as follows:

Peter  Barron:  There  is no  clear  definition  of  hate speech  in  British  law. We  have  our  own  guidelines  around  hate  speech.  The  guideline  that  we follow, which is very close to the law, is that a general expression against a  country,  for  example,  wouldn’t  qualify  as  hate  speech,  but  if  you  are promoting or advocating violence against a particular group based on their race or ethnicity, that would constitute hate speech. … I am not going to defend the content of the video; I found it abhorrent and offensive. However, the important question, which relates to wider issues of freedom of expression, is whether that content is illegal and whether it breaks our guidelines. Our policy and legal experts arrived at the conclusion that it didn’t. I think everyone in this room would agree that it was deeply distasteful.
Chair:  But  your  own  guidelines  say  that  it  is  “not  acceptable  to  post malicious,  hateful  comments  about  a group  of  people  solely  based  on their race” or religion or so on. How on earth is the phrase, “Jews admit organising white genocide”, as well as being clearly false, not a statement that  is  a  malicious  or  hateful  comment  about  a  group  of  people  solely based  on  race,  religion  or  the  other  protected  characteristics  that  your own guidelines and community standards say are unacceptable?
Peter Barron: The test that our legal and policy experts are looking at is whether  there  is  an  incitement  to  violence  against  a  particular  identified group.  I  accept  that  these  are  borderline  cases;  we  often  see  debate among our teams. The conclusion in this case was that it didn’t break our policy guidelines.

The response from Google seems to have divided commentators. One one hand, there are those who defend the principles of free speech – among them Spiked Online, which calls Yvette Cooper the ‘Witchfinder General’, and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.  On the other, there are many, most obviously the members of the Home Affairs Committee, who find this difficult to take.

Barron’s assertions that there is no definition of hate speech, and the argument that the content is not illegal, are mistakes.  The expression “hate speech” may not be used in UK law, but ”incitement to racial hatred” is, and incitement to hatred  is criminal.  There are many things that people are not allowed to say in the  UK – among them laws of public and private libel, incitement, conspiracy and sedition.  Even in the USA,  ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.’   (That comes from Schenck v. United States, 1919.)  There is a common confusion about the nature of free speech; it is not the freedom to say whatever one pleases, any more than freedom of movement means an unlimited freedom to swing your fist.

Google’s misreading of the law comes about because it has referred to the laws relating to racial hatred in the USA rather than laws in Europe.  Hate speech in the USA is protected by the First Amendment; to be criminal it has to be coupled with the threat of violence, and in general it will be charged only when it occurs in tandem with another offence.  As the threat of violence is already an offence, that reduces the status of hate crime to an aggravating factor, rather than a cause of action in its own right.  That’s why the Internet hosts other material, much worse than the example discussed in the Home Affairs Committee,  which more or less says, get these people before they get you (and no, I’m not going to post the links to the examples I’m thinking of, or even to identify the three words in Google that will bring them up).   It seems that Google is able to take down links and caches of sites questionably accused of infringing copyright, but not of sites that openly breach European laws on racial hatred.

Resilience and welfare reform

Thursday was a conference on Resilience and Welfare Reform, with Citizens Advice Scotland.  The idea of resilience is often misunderstood in Scotland, where it’s seen as a characteristic of someone’s personality; it’s up to individuals and poor communities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and the emphasis is duly put on removing barriers rather than providing the services they need.   However, in the literature on development, as put e.g. by Robert Chambers, resilience has a more more relevant meaning.  People are at risk when bad things might happen; they are vulnerable if, when bad things happen, they are likely to be harmed by them.  Resilience is the opposite of vulnerability.  People are resilient if they are not likely to be harmed by adverse risks.  Their capacity to recover depends their resources,  on other people around them and on the framework of services.    One of the most effective ways of making people resilient has been to develop social protection, and many of the problems we currently have are because that protection has been removed.