For some time now, the delivery of public services via the Internet has become a routine choice, alongside more traditional methods of delivery. A change that I think few would see anything about which to object.
However, since May 2010 digital by default has become to mean a policy by which the online option becomes the only ‘easy’ way to access public services. This policy is often justified on the grounds that it saves public money, but like so much LibCon enacted policy it has unfortunate consequences, to say the least for many of the poorest people in our society.
DWP has embraced digital by default with alacrity. It is fundamental to the implementation of Universal Credit. You will not be able to claim UC without access to the Internet. The intention being that you will manage your UC claim like you would your Internet bank account. However, unlike most bank accounts there will be no real alternative to UC online.
A prelude to UC online has been DWP’s campaign to significantly increase the number of people making a new claim for Jobseekers Allowance via the Internet. A target of 80% was set and applied at individual Jobcentre level. I understand that last year it was either met or exceeded. I stress that the target applied at Jobcentre level so it took no account of the demographics of an individual Jobcentre’s register. To be clear, if a Jobcentre covered a digitally deprived area the staff would still be expected to ‘encourage’ 80% of new JSA claimants to claim via the Internet.
The encouragement took many forms, some innocuous, some less so. Individual Jobcentres were advised to hide the existence of the JSA telephone claim line. They were only to tell people about the line when they were asked directly whether claiming online was the only option. The phone line service was reduced in tandem. Consideration was given to measures like reducing the number of DWP phone line operators; deliberately putting claimants on hold so that they might listen to pre-recorded messages about the virtues of going online, before they were put through and so on. In essence, in order to undertake some of the preliminary work for UC, JSA claimants were put through the wringer, wasting their own time and money to hit an arbitrary target of 80% for JSA online claims.
An argument made in favour of online activity has been that it frees up resources. Resources that might be used to assist those with limited or no access to the Internet. However, I would be interested to know what that means in reality. Has anyone, who has recently claimed JSA offline had a better service than they would have received prior to the inception of online claims?
The implications of UC online seem to have been partially masked by the costly mistakes of the pathfinder phase of implementation. UC online will require claimants to not only claim online, but to maintain their claims online too. They will, as a consequence need good quality, secure access to the Internet as they will be given the ‘option’ of changing personal details, their address, their bank details etc online.
It amused me to learn that the push to go online would include individuals self declaring part time work (that falls within the rules for working and signing) online. The person describing this at a meeting I attended seemed unclear as to how this aspect of UC would work in reality. I assume that they believed that with full UC implementation the employer aspect of UC would authenticate any earnings declaration. Alas, despite what DWP seems to believe people who work and sign sometimes do so with the assistance of their employer, known as collusion in the courts. I am not aware that UC will be capable of spotting a collusive employer. I am sure the Daily Mail would approve of allowing people on UC (for jobseekers) declaring their earnings online!
The only high level UC meeting I attended (a few years back) convinced me that the project was getting off to a poor start. The implementation staff who were there did not inspire confidence. DWP was not using Lean (Total Quality Management) to develop UC, because they believed, erroneously that TQM only works when you are improving an existing process. And, any way Lean was so last year and now we are going AGILE. AGILE seemed to mean groups of people going away and working on little bits of the UC end to end process. Then, at some future date they would re-assemble to try and fit their, separately designed bits together in a way that would make UC a reality. I think one might, if one had the leisure follow these people anywhere, but only out of curiosity.
If the execution of high level strategy sounded doubtful then some of the detailed proposals were similarly unconvincing. There was discussion about changing bank details online in real time. One of my colleagues explained that such a process was not available now and was there something new in the offing. No, but we thought it updated simultaneously. It does not and you will need to program an inhibitor to stop people changing their details for at least a day, each payment period. An inhibitor that would have to take effect at least 24 hours before a payment was due to be paid into an individual’s account. Without such an inhibitor at least one payment might go into the wrong account. The UC claimant would then have to liaise with the provider of their old account to recover their own money
Surprise was expressed about the declaration of subsidiary occupation earnings online (as mentioned above). Surprise turned to dismay when it was suggested that DWP staff would relish the UC way of working. UC will be available 24/7 and many of the claimant instructions will require DWP confirmation before being carried out. Imagine opening your In Box on a Monday morning to discover a weekend’s worth of these actions sitting there for you to work through. A Forth Bridge job as the actions will just keep on coming and, knowing DWP there will be plenty else for staff to do to keep them fully occupied.
There was also some discussion about whether UC claimants should get an e-mail confirming that any updates they had made online had actually been received. Most of us in the meeting had assumed that it would be programmed in as a matter of course. We seemingly suffered from the disadvantage that we were a lot closer to the day to day recipients of JSA than were the UC implementation team. I guess we felt that what we expected from our banks, people on UC would expect from UC online.
Access to UC online will not be free nor, given its nature will it be particularly easy for the full spectrum of likely recipients. And here I turn to the real disgrace that is DWP’s interpretation of digital by default. Many of those for whom DWP provides financial support are on the other side of the digital divide than you and I, dear reader. They are unwilling, incapable or unable to go online.
It should come as no surprise that one of those groups disproportionately represented on the other side of the digital divide are people with disabilities (see Disabled people still face digital divide). Ministers, senior civil servants and most of those further down the DWP hierarchy might be comfortable with using the Internet, but the people that they serve are, more often than not of the opposite persuasion. Has an Impact Assessment been undertaken to determine whether digital by default will alleviate poverty or worsen it? I think that the latter is a much more likely outcome than the former or even the status quo.