‘Institutionally and culturally incapable’ DWP should be out of a job

Major new report offers insider evidence of a need to strip the distrusted department of specific responsibilities – if not its abolition.

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The DWP should be out of a job as “institutionally and culturally incapable” of making the reforms needed to support claimants, a new report says.

Think tank Demos accuses the department of seeing claimants through a “benefits lens” in which often punitive conditions are placed on payment entitlements – with the department’s reputation among many groups now so bad that it may prove impossible to improve with distrust inherent in a distinctly unequal power dynamic.

The report makes a specific case for the DWP to be stripped of its responsibility for more vulnerable claimants, warning that if the intensively criticised department remains as it is there will be “further years of disappointing outcomes” given its “fixed and narrow” view of how things should be done.

If the removal of functions from the DWP proves to be a success, the report says a more comprehensive approach could see the department abolished altogether.

The report sees potential in core employment support services being delivered by local government taking ownership of Jobcentre Plus; benefit and pension payments responsibilities delivered by HMRC; and support for ‘harder to help’ groups provided through specified channels from the NHS to charities.

This, the report says, could enable a much more localised social security system, with greater potential for ‘bottom-up’ design of services and support to respond to local need.

In Whitehall, rumour is rife of a major re-shuffle of government departments, raising the prospect of super-ministries absorbing a range of functions.

Demos says most of the work done by the DWP could be “carried out more effectively” by other Whitehall departments.

Focussing on the immediate term, the report warns reforms won’t succeed without shifts in perception sufficient to counteract the “latent levels of distrust towards the DWP “that claimant groups hold, citing “difficult and distressing” distressing interactions with the DWP in Jobcentres or benefits assessments.

And public communications from the DWP over recent years have often not helped the situation, the report says, focusing more on tackling fraud and cutting costs than on providing positive and empowering support.

Certain ‘harder-to-help’ groups, such as ill and disabled people, have felt “particularly targeted” by this rhetoric, the report says.

In a dismissive response, the DWP – repeatedly accused of arrogance, callousness and intransigence in the face of evidenced failings – called the report “misguided.”

Tom Pollard, the report’s author, spent 18 months at the DWP on secondment from mental health charity Mind.

By the end of his time there he concluded that the DWP is” institutionally and culturally incapable” of making the reforms needed to achieve such a shift in outcomes for ill and disabled people, or for ‘harder-to-help’ groups more widely.

Because of the narrow parameters of thinking among officials, I came to the conclusion that more radical reform would have to be driven at a political level.

However, this would require a bold political agenda and strength of conviction that I saw little evidence of during the comings and goings of three Secretaries of State and multiple Ministers in the 18 months I was at the department, said Pollard.

“Even where Ministers did ask pertinent questions of officials, the response was muted by the limited internal policy debate and the sense of ownership and responsibility over operations.

As such, rather than providing an expansive range of options for change with pros and cons for each, advice seemed to err towards justifying current practice and explaining why it would be difficult to do things differently,” he said.

With the DWP seemingly unable to siphon the toxicity from universal credit, the new benefits system, and for work capability assessments, its new Secretary of State is trying to restore what little reputation the department has left.

The Demos repot acknowledges the DWP as being of some help to claimants with “minor difficulties” its outcomes are “much poorer” when it comes to supporting those with more complex needs”., such as the ill, disabled, older people, those with drug and alcohol problems, ex-prisoners and the homeless.

As such, the report says the DWP to be stripped of responsibility for these hard-to-help groups, with the NHS, Department for Health and charities given a greater role in working with the vulnerable, local government taking over Jobcentre Plus, and benefits and pensions delivered by HMRC.

“If the removal of these functions from the DWP proves to be a success, a more comprehensive approach could see the department abolished altogether,” the report concludes. “If the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”

Pollard found the “benefits lens” most concerning, with interpretations of conditions assumed as the main lever to change claimant behaviour – with the type of benefit received (or  categorisation within that benefit) largely determining the employment support they are provided and, critically, the degree of conditionality to which claimants are subject.

“I believe this ‘benefits lens’, so deeply embedded in departmental thinking, creates fundamental barriers to engaging people from ‘harder-to-help’ groups, and delivering effective employment support to them.

As well as a misplaced faith in the effectiveness of conditional benefits for this group, there was little recognition from most officials I worked with of the potential negative impact of framing the relationship with ‘claimants’ in this inherently confrontational manner,” said Pollard.

“Even when bold ideas do emerge from early policy thinking, my experience was that they tend to be ‘stubbed out’ by often tenuous objections about how they would translate into operational delivery.

For example, the case is made that the proposal wouldn’t be ‘compatible’ with current practice, or would contravene current processes and protocols, which are heavily driven by risk aversion, or that it is something that Jobcentres already do – although these claims don’t tend to hold up when examined.

“As a result of the obstructiveness of the officials who are tasked with translating policy into delivery, those working on policy development often pre-emptively clip the wings’ of proposals in anticipation of such objections,” he said.

The report concludes on a need to “decouple” benefit conditionality and employment support.

“As soon as support is linked to the threat of punishment, it stops feeling like support for these ‘harder-to-help’ groups, and it stops having any chance of working. If take-up is low for voluntary support, then we need to redesign support so that it works and is welcomed, not bully people into unwilling and ineffective participation,” said Pollard.

Secondly, the report calls for a transfer of responsibility for helping ‘harder-to-help’ groups away from the DWP to a “range of organisations” working together and arguably better placed to foster the type of engagement than evidence shows the DWP is incapable of.

Demos is now to explore the potential in a range of options including:

  • Greater onus could be placed on the Department for Health and Social Care, working with NHS England, to support people with health-related barriers to employment
  • Supported to access training and qualifications by the Department for Education, which holds responsibility for education and skills funding
  • Devolving more responsibility and funding for these groups to sub-national government, whether local or combined authorities allowing for a place-based approach with collaboration across a range of local public services.
  • Specialist third sector organisations playing a greater role in supporting these groups, making use of the expertise, trust and rapport they already hold in relation to their client – With the right environment and contracting/payment arrangements.

“Of course, such transformations would not be easy to achieve – working through the details of how to deliver any of these alternative approaches will be a long and complex task.

“They would also not guarantee better outcomes in and of themselves – the support available would have to be of the highest quality and complemented by other services,” said Pollard.

“But I firmly believe that meaningful progress in supporting ‘harder-to-help’ groups into employment will not occur within the parameters created by the DWP as it currently exists.

“Unless we address the underlying institutional and cultural factors that have undermined policy and delivery in this space for so long, we will simply continue to reproduce a failing system,” he said.

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