The DWP’s latest coronavirus move is utterly twisted

4 April 2020 — The Canary

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has descended into further chaos amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But its latest move to try and keep itself afloat amid ‘unprecedented times’ is actually utterly twisted.

The DWP: unprecedented chaos?

As The Canary has been documenting, the DWP has faced staggering levels of new claimants since the government lockdown started. Nearly one million people had already applied for Universal Credit by 1 April.

But the DWP’s approach has been chaotic and ill-thought through. For example, it was still making new Universal Credit claimants go into jobcentres if they couldn’t prove their identity online. As Computer Weekly reported, only 35% of these one million new claimants could actually do it via the internet. This has meant the whole DWP system has been a shambles. Contracts have also ended for several of the private companies who provide the ID verification service for the DWP. This means claimants only have two ways of verifying their ID online.

Moreover, the controversial five-week wait for a first payment has remained in place. Meanwhile, the DWP has barely done anything to support the millions of unpaid carers. And its policy coupled with government delays in rolling out extra support could leave millions of self-employed people sitting on a financial ticking time bomb,

But now, just to add final insult to injury, the DWP has perhaps made its most twisted move yet.

The executed-turned-executioner

As the Manchester Evening News (MEN) reported, the department is struggling to cope with increased demand. So, the DWP is going on a temporary recruitment drive. But included in this is something shocking. As MEN wrote, the DWP is “inviting”:

Benefits claimants… to apply for jobs handing handing out Universal Credit…

The DWP said:

To increase staff numbers as quickly as possible we are inviting claimants to apply, as well as inviting staff to refer family and friends who they think are a good fit for the role.

Not to put it too bluntly, but those on the DWP’s economic and social death row are about to become the executioners. Because putting claimants on the other side of the desk is the ultimate in social engineering.

Peak behavioural psychology

There’s been a lot of talk about the government using behavioural science to inform its coronavirus strategy. But this “science” isn’t really science at all. It’s actually a branch of economics. As the Guardian wrote:

Behavioural economics incorporates the study of psychology into the analysis of the decision-making behind an economic outcome, such as the factors leading up to a consumer buying one product instead of another. …

Unlike the field of classical economics, in which decision-making is entirely based on cold-headed logic, behavioural economics allows for irrational behaviour and attempts to understand why this may be the case. The concept can be applied in miniature to individual situations, or more broadly to encompass the wider actions of a society or trends in financial markets.

But coronavirus is not the first time the government has used behavioural economics. Because it originally formed part of Tory policy at the DWP.

Nudging away

Universal Credit was originally designed by Iain Duncan Smith and this thinktank the Centre for Social Justice. Its overriding idea was that work is the best route out of poverty; a vacuous phrase still echoed by Tories to this day.

Central to this was ‘dynamic modelling’ – the idea of creating a system that changed people’s behaviour to get them into work. This is what Kitty Jones’s excellent work on ‘nudge theory’ documents. Essentially, this meant the DWP cutting people’s money so they had no choice but to get a job. Or, in the case of in-work benefits like tax credits, cutting them as people started earning more. It was led by then government department called the Behavioural Insights team, also known as the Nudge Unit.

This idea that government can force behavioural change in people by predicting how they’ll react to certain policies or rules has been central to both the welfare system and coronavirus. But when you look at the DWP’s move to recruit claimants into its own numbers, this reeks of behavioural economics, too.

Claimant against claimant

By having benefit claimants suddenly now working for it, the DWP is ‘nudging’ their behaviour threefold.

Firstly, it allows the DWP to manipulate claimants’ attitudes towards it. By having claimants now work for it, the DWP can show them ‘the other side’ of the welfare system. It can demonstrate how ‘caring’ it is; what a ‘difficult’ job it does, and how it ‘tries its best’, while all the evidence of this is completely to the contrary. Nudge number one.

Secondly, its giving claimants a false sense of power and security. It’s the ‘carrot and stick’ analogy. By briefly giving claimants work, in an environment it has control over, the DWP is handing itself the ability to say to claimants when this is all over: ‘Look! Wasn’t work wonderful! Now, you’ve got no excuse not to get yourself a job!’ Nudge number two.

And thirdly, it’s creating a whole new class of claimant. Essentially, you’ll now have a subset of people who are somehow above all the rest of us. Those claimants who are (according to the DWP) fit-for-work will have a part in dealing with those who are not. With the first two nudges above comes the third. These DWP claimant-workers will now have power over people who used to be their peers. It is, as previously said, almost people on death row becoming the executioner. This will undoubtedly create hostility on both sides. It’s classic divide and conquer.

But ultimately, this whole move is little more than a ruse by the DWP.

Utterly dystopian

The coronavirus crisis will not last forever. Soon, these claimants-turned-DWP workers will be back on benefits again. But the experience will probably change many of them. The DWP will be hoping that these claimants will be more subservient, less hostile, towards it.

But that’s where behavioural economics and nudging fails. Because however much pseudoscience you push, humans are complex animals. Just because you think you can predict how we’re going to behave, that doesn’t mean you actually know for sure. The failure of sanctions to get people into work, one of the main Nudge Unit policies, is the perfect example of this. So by putting claimants on the other side of the desk, the DWP may actually be harming itself. Because a group of people with inside knowledge of the system could actually be a dangerous thing. There may well be an army of DWP rebels after this – ironically one of its own making. That would be the most delicious twist to this whole, sorry story.

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