Saturday, June 28, 2008

The customer is always right

There are many different terms used to describe someone who hasn't got a job. The trade unions talk about 'unemployed workers', tabloids write about 'scroungers', government officials measure the number of 'claimants'. Each of those different terms reveals a different way of thinking about unemployment.

James Purnell, the government minister in charge of Work, has a way of talking about this which I think is new. When discussing people who are out of work, he talks about 'customers'.

His speech to the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion highlighted the doublethink involved in welfare reform. At one moment he was talking about how "people know what they need. People know what works best for them. We need to give them the ability to act on that knowledge...Most unemployed people want to get back to work and we should trust them to choose how," and yet at the next, "We explicitly set out to restrict the choice of claimants, by making benefits contingent on certain conditions."

Then he highlights the success of the public sector, "Their record is pretty remarkable with 60 per cent of JSA claimants leaving benefit within 3 months. And over 90 per cent in a year. And it’s been achieved through fundamental but largely unheralded reform," and then boasts that "DWP is already the most outsourced in Whitehall...The use of private and voluntary providers for us is not revolutionary, its business as usual."

The result is a set of policies which do have some good ideas. The basic idea is to let "customers" choose from a range of different providers who are able to offer support which is personalised to particular needs, whether it is providing more skills training, help with childcare, transport or whatever. It is also going to be easier for new providers who have innovative ideas about helping, say, ex-offenders or people with drug and alcohol addictions find work to establish themselves.

But there are two really serious flaws in the approach that Purnell supports. He says that he is not being ideological, but the very use of the word "customer" is deeply ideological. Reducing unemployment isn't the same as running a supermarket - in many parts of the country, more support for one person won't increase overall levels of employment, but will mean that they get a job and someone else doesn't. A focus on "customers" puts the emphasis on individual behaviour, rather than on structural causes of unemployment.

What's more, the welfare reform debate has become detached from the reality of what it is like to try to find a job and the reality of what many low waged jobs are actually like (not many people who actually have to live with the consequences of his policies would agree with the way Purnell describes the current situation).

Purnell wants partnership working between the state and employment providers, but the essential voice that is missing is that of the "grassroots", of unemployed workers who could tell these people what things are really like and when they are missing the point.

Or, to put it in terms which James Purnell might prefer better - if you want to reduce "worklessness", listen to your customers.

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