So I was having a long talk with Declan Gaffney on Twitter about incapacity benefit and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Gaffer mentioned that when he’d been working for the Greater London Authority with John Hutton’s DWP in 2006, nobody seemed to have been aware that the IB caseload was rapidly ageing-out, and that therefore it was increasingly ridiculous to expect people to launch a new career with only a couple of years to go before retirement age and anyway the problem was going to solve itself.
I nearly fell off my chair – the big run-up in IB happened in the 80s and early 90s. A lot of ex-industrial workers had at least one problem that could justify IB, and the political imperative to make claimant count unemployment look better led to them being transferred from unemployment to inactivity, in the dry statistical terms. Further, the older people were naturally less likely to get on their bikes, etc, etc. And by 2006, it was all twenty years in the past. Wasn’t all this trivially obvious? Apparently no.
I said to the Gaffer that the main problem with DWP is that it’s always fighting the last war. He agreed, saying that by the mid-90s it had just about come to terms with unemployment and therefore missed inactivity as an issue. By 2006, I said, it had been trained as an organisation to worry about inactivity and especially incapacity, as unemployment seemed to have gone away.
This led it to see its mission as dealing with relatively small groups of people with complex and entrenched problems, justifying more intervention and a sort of pseudo-medical attitude. It also led DWP to engage with the NGOs that had sprung up in the post-industrial north, mostly, to look after the long-term unemployed. It’s worth remembering that A4e started off as a charity called Action for Employment in Sheffield.
It was around this time Iain Duncan Smith was in the process of reinventing himself. Having decided to “faire du social” as the French say, he, most of all politicians, needed to import some ideas about how. He got the ideas from the US neo-conservative Lawrence Mead and his circle’s idea of a culture of poverty. This seemed to fit the facts, ish, and also fit with his own Christian-inspired self presentation. The IDS package consists of Mead-ian moralising, DWP treatment-ism, and charity capitalism.
But of course, none of this stuff was in the least bit applicable to the 2010s. First of all, unemployment made a comeback in a big way. DWP struggled to realise the world had changed. Then it began falling, but two new problems emerged: underemployment, and soaring housing benefit calls. Meanwhile, the post-industrial IB caseload was aging out, leaving the group subjected to Atos assessments enriched with people whose problems were much worse than a bad back.
So what’s going on here? Meet Michael D. Cohen and his Garbage Can Model of decision making. Cohen observed that organisations do not, in fact, observe problems and proceed to derive solutions to them. Instead, having met a problem, they reach into the garbage can, the stock of unused proposals that is always lying around, and try to force-fit anything that seems likely to the problem. This explains why the same old rubbish comes up every time there’s a crisis. In the UK, rather than a garbage can, we might say we have a skip full of initiatives.
We will now pause to consider the Labour Party leadership contest.
That done, back to the DWP. They’re always behind because the stuff in the can is always the surplus of ideas from a while ago. That’s why it’s garbage. We could think about how to do better, but that would probably take us in the direction of why cache invalidation is a notoriously hard programming problem. Also, it strikes me that the history of DWP from the 1980s is the history of our movement towards a low-trust society. I just found it in this skip.