Friday, 28 August 2009

Benefit Busters

I've made a couple of replies on Subrosa's blog about benefit busters. You might want to nip over and have a look. I'm going to flesh out my comments here.

Time and time again, you see government envisage a problem, spout rhetoric, deploy plans and then declare the problem is fixed, when the reality is far from the truth. I provided an example on Subrosa's blog: The government announced they were getting tougher on the unemployed and their policies (like the minimum wage) were going to create lots of lovely well-paid jobs for them to do. The benefit rules were changed so you lost jobseekers after 6 months, the minimum wage was introduced to make sure people didn't work for less than benefits, working tax credits were introduced to help those on benefits, private companies were brought in to manage the unemployed into work, in fact a whole raft of changes to the welfare and benefits system have been enacted over the past 12 years.

But has it worked? Well we don't know, because the feedback from the system is either non-existant, skewed so much by government departments as to be useless, or of more concern, totally ignored or suppressed.

Anyone in the system will tell you it doesn't work. The system hasn't been changed where it counts to reflect modern working practices, which requires people flexible enough to do extremely short term temporary work. Also, some of the changes have been counter-productive, providing a disincentive to leave benefits, rather than an incentive.

So why don't the government see this and sort out the system? Because thanks to the lack of reliable feedback, the government believes its done the job and thats the end of it. Instead it takes a FOI request like this one to show that in fact in real terms, the number of unemployed hasn't dropped, despite the government's best efforts. So feedback shows the inputs they made to the system haven't had the required effect.

Another example is the governments avowed policy to reduce child poverty. Many schemes have had much money spent on them, but only now has the feedback been produced to show that child poverty has increased under Labour than decreased.

Another is climate change. The government has raised billions in extra "green taxes" and intends to spend billions in order to reduce CO2 emissions. But nowhere is there any mention of measurement. How do we measure our success? If we monitor the megawatts of electricity used, does a reduction indicate people becoming more energy efficient, or is it an indictor of recession? Are we going to monitor every chimney for emissions and note any reduction in CO2?
I took Ed Milliband to task on Labourlist about this back in July, asking him before he comitted billions of pounds of our money to climate change, how was he going to monitor success? Because without feedback, he was just chucking money away. I never got a reply.

A crucial point about all this is once you have feedback from the system, if your expected output doesn't match your objectives, you modify the input by either going back to how the system was before you messed with it, or by identifying where the anomalies lie. That, one instantly recognises is the logical progression.

In the case of unemployment as the FOI request mentioned above reveals, its pretty obvious that uncontrolled immigration has had a quite significant impact. Its also had an impact on education and the health service too, but hey, immigration is too hot to handle for the government. Although you'd think a dispassionate analysis of reliable feedback data would be welcomed, as it should remove most criticisms or cries of racism.

Governments will continue to add layer upon layer of new legislation and process changes heaped on top of those already in place. With no feedback, how can they ever hope to ensure such a complex system is changed for the better?

Well the answer is they won't. The REAL problem with reliable feedback is that its an indicator of failure as well as success. Governments don't like to be labelled failures because it invites criticism and rectifying it may go against whatever dogma they are peddling at the time. But they should embrace failure, because as long as they do something to correct it, failure is all part of the process.

Just remember when governments of any persuasion tell you they are going to do something, ask yourself and them, wheres measurement, the feedback that will confirm success or failure?

Ask yourself some questions: what if Churchill, during the second world war, kept sending ships across the Atlantic without measuring how many of those sent actually arrived here safe? How would he have known that the U-boat threat was increasing? How would he have known that his current plans were failing and that something needed to be done about it? How would he have known that the things he implemented worked or not? He had to have reliable feedback and he had to aknowledge failure, be brave enough to embrace it, and strong enough to do something about it.


  1. I had to come over after your incisive points on Subrosa's blog yesterday. As you say to calculate the effect exposes the depth of self-incrmination ie. in the good AND the bad.
    Wasn't it Socrates who had to commit sicide after his effort to demonstrate 'good/wise' he had to admit the presence of 'bad/stupidity'? Better to keep up the pretence of front-loading ('modernising')in the hope of impressing the gullible with the political expediency of "spending more year on year" hoping that the goodwill of those at the sharp end of whatever service will battle on to moderate the worst effects - thus demonstrating the point why poor old Socrates had to drink the hemlock! In effect we end up with the mediocre, indifferent, resigned and redundant habit of clinging (just) to the wreckage or the daily crisis practice of 'fighting fires'.
    My experience is within the NHS - at the clinical practice end - and for the last 40 years it has been my great sadness (and I'm far from being alone in all this) to see what was a pretty efficient system run largely by professionals crumble at its heart due to the combined powerful forces of ignorant and arrogant politico-managerialism.
    I have often taken the 'engineered' model of human physiology to try and demonstrate the indispensible value of relevant and sensitive feedback mechanisms, the dangers of attempting to function constantly beyond a reasonable threshold and the necessity for intrinsic rest and repair. In my own small way these fundamental human systems and processes have stood us in pretty good stead - I often wonder what horrors the abysmal effect of managerialism would have on physiological function if given half a chance?

  2. My mother was a nursing auxilliary in the late seventies/early eighties. She saw the rise of the administartors as they took over running of wards and thought it wasn't going to end well.
    She was right of course and now we have the NHS, bloated by administrators and managers, all demanding a wage and none of them helping front line staff do their jobs.
    Feedback is fundamental to all systems, biological, mechanical, electrical...
    Feedback is critical to success: whether its a multi-million pound project, running a war, or the simple biological action of picking up a delicate item.
    Its a shame that its been eliminated from government strategy. But as I mentioned, not unexpected.


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