Universal Credit has attracted considerable criticism from experts and politicians. Yet could it be that it has also caused civil servants associated with the policy to leave their jobs? Kayleigh Garthwaite, Jo Ingold, and Mark Monaghan present findings from preliminary research with former personnel from Jobcentre Plus.
Throughout 2018, Universal Credit (UC) has been a prominent feature of political discussion, second only to Brexit. UC is an attempt to simplify the benefits system through the introduction of one single working age benefit and to improve incentives to work through the radical restructuring of the benefits and Tax Credits systems. The design and implementation of UC have been defined by austerity and large-scale expenditure cuts to central government departments and drives for greater efficiency following the (2007-8) financial crash. Consequently, the roll out of the policy has been beset with difficulties, magnified by a turbulent political environment (two General Elections, the Brexit Referendum and changes in Ministerial Portfolios).
Since the introduction of UC, which has consolidated both conditionality and punitive benefit sanctioning, there has been an accruing evidence base highlighting the detrimental impact of UC and social security reform more broadly, particularly for those living on low incomes and in poverty. Unfortunately, there is no clear sign of this research being incorporated into policy and so far, no sign that UC will be amended or abandoned.
Between us we have spent the last few years looking at various aspects and impacts of changes to social security policy in the UK, ranging from accounts of the social consequences of austerity, exacerbated by UC, which has led to rising levels of foodbank use; the role of evidence in the policy discussions within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) at the time of UC design; and the role of employers in active labour market policies. It became apparent that little work had been conducted with practitioners responsible for the rollout of the policy. This seems a significant gap bearing in mind the amount of negative publicity that has accompanied the rollout of UC, which sat alongside public statements that despite the difficulties, staff morale within the DWP remains the highest in Whitehall.
Despite a slight increase from 2017 to 2018, from around 2010 there has been a significant reduction in the number of civil servants which coincides with the design and development of UC. Little is known of the reasons for staff departures and whether the demands of working on a controversial policy such as UC played a role. Over the summer of 2018 we conducted preliminary research in the form of in-depth interviews (n=8) with former personnel from Jobcentre Plus in the North of England. We initially hypothesised that reasons for departure would include: financial packages on offer; timing; age; ill health; other opportunities in the labour market or career change; dissatisfaction with current role or manager; and a lack of opportunities in the Department or wider civil service. We were particularly interested in whether objections to policy were also part of the equation.
Amongst our respondents, dissatisfaction with their current role was perhaps the clearest theme to emerge as to why they departed the DWP. This wasn’t always linked to UC per se, but was part of the broader austerity landscape in which UC emerged and was linked to longer term ideological developments within both social policy and public administration, which coalesced around increasing use of managerialist forms of governance and austerity. As has been documented, the movements towards activation in welfare policies foregrounded as a means of reducing the deficit has required specific forms of governance to the extent that welfare-to-work organisations find themselves in almost permanent processes of reorganisation. For our respondents, it was this experience that produced the most consternation.
In terms of top down management targets, our respondents told us of the impact of initiatives within the DWP and how targets and objectives were impossible to hit as meetings with clients had become so truncated, but also because of inconsistency in targets:
… they changed the goalposts all the time. One Monday when I went in it would be all about getting so many people into work experience that week. The next Monday morning it would be getting so many people into sector based work academies.
This impacted most of the vulnerable who would fall through the system when the initiatives didn’t match their needs. This frequently ended in a sanction, leaving the staff feeling bereft and stressed from the predicament of their clients, but also their own working environment:
I just thought “this is awful”. I went home and I was really stressed, my jaw was stressed. And I just thought, “oh my god”. I just felt terrible. And I was annoyed with myself for letting her get to me like that. But it was just an unnatural situation really.
These issues were confounded by a key development in DWP: ‘digital by default’ service delivery. The target culture not only fed into individual appraisal where managers would closely, physically monitor the working practices of front-line staff; staff performance was also measured through digital monitoring. This contributed to staff feelings of dehumanization. Our respondents reported that the move towards a fully digitized service not only led to feelings of de-skilling and autonomy, but also took away the public service motivation and ethos that drew our respondents into working in the civil service in the first instance. Staff described being permanently on the ‘back foot’, in that digital services were rolled out without staff being given the relevant training. There was also a profound shift in their own views of the public service ethos, which had changed to such an extent that staff reported to us that it was now ‘embarrassing’ to be associated with Jobcentre Plus and that their actions were making ‘vulnerable people more vulnerable’.
I wanted to do a good job, but at the same time my heart wasn’t in it, I was part of something that didn’t sit very comfortably with me. It was becoming embarrassing to say where I worked.
We are not suggesting that UC was solely or directly responsible for the findings we report here. Many of these issues reported to us predated the rollout of UC. But what we found seems to be a product of the direction of policy travel, as well as continuous reorganization of the delivery of social security and public employment services are in the UK. What was apparent from our discussions with ex-Jobcentre Plus personnel is that under UC these factors were only getting worse. Time will tell whether this continues to be the case.
Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham.
Jo Ingold is Associate Professor of Human Resource Management and Public Policy at the University of Leeds.
Mark Monaghan is Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at the University of Birmingham.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: Pixabay (Public Domain).