Monday, March 21, 2016

Be useful, be kind: the future welfare state

It would take a heart of stone not to enjoy Iain Duncan Smith's resignation and the ongoing collision between the promises that the Tories made at the last election and reality.

However, none of this makes it any easier for those of us who would like to see more decent and humane ŵelfare policy.  Recent research by Britain Thinks for the Labour Party summarised what swing voters think about welfare policy.  Their hope is that the government will reward people who contribute and 'sort out the scroungers'.  Anyone who thinks these attitudes are restricted to swing voters should have a look at this research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

How to respond to this?

Firstly, even before their budget fell apart, we know that the Tories won't achieve this.  Their welfare reforms have created a system in which people experiencing tough times are more and more likely to be caught out and punished by arbitrary rules, while people who just want to play the system continue to get what they want.

Secondly, the approach of telling voters that they are wrong to be concerned about benefit fraud and scroungers and trying to educate them to think differently isn't working.

Thirdly, the best ideas come from the people who use ŵelfare services, rather than think tanks and the political elite. Compare and contrast policy disasters such such as the Work Capability Assessment and Universal Credit, to the living wage or the ideas of the Spartacus Network.

So let's start by assuming that when people say that they want a system to reward contributors and sort out scroungers, that our goal should be to come up with ideas to make that happen rather than telling them why they are wrong.  This will require different policies from those of the government, and we should listen to people at the grassroots as they will have the best ideas.

Swing voters dislike a system which seems to be all about what people can take, and where there seems to be no relationship between what people do for others and what they receive.  Similarly, those who need support are frustrated by a system which often seems to put barriers in the way who want to help others, with arbitrary assessments and inadequate help which isn't suited to their needs. To get support, you need to understand how to work the rules to show what you can't do and make sure that your problemsare seen as sufficiently serious.

I was recently reading All our Ŵelfare, Peter Beresford's excellent book on the welfare state.  He defines welfare as being about 'how we look after each other in society'.  He also makes a powerful and compelling case that rather than experts assessing what people need, people should be able - with advocacy and support - to identify what support they need to do the things that they want to do.  Rather than starting with what people can't do, this approach starts with what they can do.

So here's a suggestion.  What if welfare services in future started not with a diagnosis about whether people are eligible for support, but instead was organised around two questions:

What do you want to do to help other people?
What support do you need to be able to do this?

In other words, the welfare state becomes about what people can give, and enabling them to give more, not what they can take.  Rather than the toxic divide between "taxpayers" and "scroungers", this draws on the ideas and priorities of people who use services to respond to the swing voters.

This also recognises that paid employment is one way to contribute and help others, but that raising a family, volunteering to help others with the same health condition and many other activities are also ways of contributing to our general welfare.  That's something we've known for many years, but which some in the Labour Party with their tokenistic talk about different benefit levels for people depending on how long they have worked seem to have forgotten.  

It would also make the welfare system open to and useful for many more people - people who are self employed or running a small business and who want help to be able to develop their business, hire more people and so on, as just one example.  It would recognise that people with disabilities aren't passive victims, but that it is all of our responsibility to change society to help them to fulfil their potential.

This intentionally isn't a detailed shopping list of policies.  A system designed on these principles will keep some of the existing system and get rid of other bits, and involve people who provide and receive services in deciding what works and what needs changing.

It is easy to see how a system like this would do more to reward contributors.  That would, after all, be its starting point and main aim.  But how would it sort out the scroungers?

Firstly, it would be much tougher for people who are only interested in what they can take, or in taking benefits as a lifestyle choice.  At the moment, they just need to learn the rules and jump through the hoops.  It is much tougher to do this if the starting point is about what you can do for other people, rather than what you can take from the taxpayer.

But more than that, here's a real life example of what it might mean:

Down on Benefits Street in the north west of England, there lived a Hard to Reach Scrounger.  Every year, he received thousands of pounds in benefits from the taxpayer, and hundreds of thousands more indirectly in support from a whole range of different professionals for his various problems.  Every day, he would call 999 several times, and the police would have to come out and respond to whatever the drama of the day was.

So one day, the police tried a new approach.  Rather than waiting for him to call 999, they sent someone round and had a chat with him.  They found out more about his life, about his skills and about how he had had a breakdown which meant he had quit his job and got into the problems he was experiencing.  Then from this, they worked with the other professionals to put together the support he needed for his drink and drugs addictions.  Then they helped him to get a job.  

They needed someone with construction project management skills for the Jobs, Friends, Houses project they were running where people coming out of prison were hired to refurbish homes: learning new skills and doing something useful.  He used to be a project manager and had the skills they needed.  Now instead of being a scrounger, he is working hard and using his skills to help others.

There is no tick box or one size fits all solution to helping people to help each other.  Any system will need to be complicated and flexible because people's lives are complicated and what works for one person won't work for another.  But treating people with respect and supporting and challenging them to help others doesn't just reward contributors.  It also turns scroungers into contributors.


President Obama recently summed up his hopes for his children in four words: "be useful, be kind".  If that is good enough for the children of the President of the United States, it sounds like a good aim for the welfare state too.  A system which enables people to be useful and kind to each other, and which itself is useful and kind: surely this is a worthwhile alternative to the mess which Iain Duncan Smith has left behind.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What can Labour Iearn from Lego?

Alison McGovern, one of Labour’s most thoughtful and interesting MPs, recently wrote a blog calling for universal free childcare.  As she explains, “universal childcare – where parents would have access to free, good quality care for children during working hours – would make a seriously radical change to the choices available to families."  I agree completely.  This would benefit parents, businesses, help to tackle poverty and improve the life chances for children.  

One problem, though is that universal free childcare would be a big new state programme.  Alison is worried about this, because the British Social Attitudes survey shows that younger people distrust the state and are more individualist.  She asks, “is this [lack of access to affordable childcare] a modern problem to which we are offering a big centralised state solution?”*

Perhaps we could learn something from Lego, who in recent years have faced a similar dilemma.  In Lego's case, big data analysis and surveys showed that their customers increasingly demanded instant gratification and had shorter attention spans.  It seemed like Lego might go the way of social democracy, popular in the mid to late twentieth century, but out of tune with what people want in the twenty first.  But after talking to Lego fans in more depths, they found out that the analytics only told part of the story:

"At that moment, it all came together for the LEGO team. Those theories about time compression and instant gratification? They seemed to be off base. Inspired by what an 11-year-old German boy had told them about an old pair of Adidas sneakers, the team realized that children attain social currency among their peers by playing and achieving a high level of mastery at their chosen skill, whatever that skill happens to be. If the skill is valuable, and worthwhile, they will stick with it until they get it right, never mind how long it takes. For kids, it was all about paying your dues and having something tangible to show for it in the end."

More detail here  - the whole story is definitely worth a read.

And so they responded by making their products more intricated, more detailed, and going against the conventional wisdom about what customers wanted.  And last year, they became the biggest toy company in the world.

This offers a possible solution to the dilemma which Alison is grappling with.  Labour doesn't need to choose between dogmatically sticking with outdated ideas which aren't relevant to the modern world or junking our principles.  We can be aware of the big trends in society, and also learn from people when they seem to be telling us something different from the surveys and polls.  Then we can synthesise this information, and apply our values to develop effective and practical solutions.

In other words, if people are telling us that universal childcare would really help them out, that is probably telling us something important about the limitations of surveys on how people are rugged individualists and hostile to the state.  This combination of big data analytics and conversations with people at the grassroots offers the best way of staying relevant and meeting people's needs, whether you're selling toys or trying to bring about social change.

*Alison argues that universal childcare doesn't have to be a big state solution, because it can be delivered in a localised way.  Quite apart from the surveys which show how people dislike the "postcode lotteries" that would occur, if people don't like the centralised state, they aren't going to be any keener on big new programmes delivered by local councils or new quangos.  Localism is a diversion from the real political challenge here, not a solution to it.