Signing on

I signed on today

It’s not something that I’ve done before – and for that I know I’m more than lucky compared to some others. This blogpost is another difficult post to write – both in terms of personal reactions but also in terms of writing in a manner that doesn’t sound condescending, patronising or insulting.

Economic crisis

The first thing to mention is the current global economic situation. The news headlines have been telling us how bad things are. Those of us who have been made redundant one way or another, or those who have been out of work and who are struggling to find work don’t need the news headlines to tell them how tough things are in the jobs market. Not only that, there’s the fallout – something that the newspapers only seem to take notice of when “middle classes” start to become affected. As for the 15 year economic boom from the mid-1990s, there are parts of the country that were completely bypassed, or that seem to be the first to suffer and the last to recover. (See the BBC from 1999 and from 2011). Hence I’ll try to avoid the ‘Middle class is magical’ meets tough times with a spring in step.

My point? Less than four years ago I was stepping into the shoes of a Minister of the Crown at three hours notice to deliver a speech at City Hall in London to an audience of several hundred because he had been called in on a three-line whip to deal with the banking crisis. Today? I signed on. There are far more people who were far higher up in the echelons of the public sector who, as a results of the cuts found themselves out of work very quickly – whether it was their organisation closing down or cutting back. Don’t think it can’t happen to you. It can.

The Welfare State – supporting the unemployed, whatever their class

This brings me to the welfare state. Through Puffles I’ve commented that we tried Victorian style philanthropy to deal with society’s problems and we found out the hard way that this went nowhere near to solving society’s problems – hence the welfare state. The welfare state is plagued with problems and imperfections – whether its from the unrepresentative stories of some individuals claiming hundreds of thousands, to the stories that don’t make the papers involving individuals being passed from pillar to post in order to get their claims sorted out properly.

There is however, something to be said about being a citizen of a country and claiming things that you are entitled to as such a citizen – something that Ed Miliband made a point of when defending universal child benefit payments. (Means testing can be a bureaucratic nightmare – hence the risk of spending more on the means testing system than on the payments that are issued to citizens.) While I think there’s something to be said and debated about ‘human responsibilities’ alongside ‘human rights’, my fear about moving towards a Victorian style philanthropy system I think runs the risk of undermining some of the basic dignities I’d like to think we are born with as human beings, and certainly for those of us fortunate to be born citizens of the UK with the benefits and entitlements citizenship brings.

Signing on the line

Moving onto “so what was it like signing on?” I don’t want this to sound like “Oooh! Let’s see what poor people have to put up with!” or present this as some sort of journalistic expedition to parts of the world where the middle classes fear to tread. I’ve paid into the system of national insurance for the best part of over a decade. Now that I find myself no longer in work, part of the deal of having made all of those payments is seeking the assistance that the state provides. My fear is that large parts of the media and the middle classes that they claim to represent have forgotten this – and as a result there may well be a number of people out there who are not claiming the benefits and support that they are entitled to.

The online registration was straight forward, and fortunately they were able to book me in for an appointment the following day. I originally thought that I could do that bit in person at the job centre – hence turning up yesterday to do so. I wanted to see if I had the courage to turn up to the job centre to say “I am unemployed, I need to sign on, I need some help” to someone while looking them in the eyes. They sent me on my way to register online anyway.

The appointment today was straightforward enough – sign this stuff, agree to do a list of things before your next appointment next week and the benefit payments will be in your account accordingly depending on if you provide paper evidence of having done the stuff agreed. But it was the stuff around it that as both a human being and an ex-civil servant that made me think: “Surely we can do better than this?!?!”

The first thing that raised my eyebrows was the presence of three burly-looking security guards. Nowhere has security guards unless there is form of having problems with people being violent towards staff. This made me feel sad for the people who have to work in an environment where people can and do become physically abusive and threatening. No one should have to work in that environment.

The second thing that hit me was the agitated man on the phone who was clearly being pushed from pillar to post over a stopped payment. Although not wanting to listen into his conversation, the phone booths (which presumably put you through to a call centre somewhere) don’t allow nearly the amount of privacy that, if in the same position I would want if discussing what are very sensitive personal issues. In a nutshell, this mans benefit payments were (according to him) the difference between him having a half-decent meal that evening and not. Hence it is understandable why people in his position get agitated if it is not clear to them when and why benefit payments are stopped.

The third thing that struck me was how dated the systems and processes of the job centre seemed to be. It’s all paper-based. When I first noted the lady filling in these note cards on which she wrote my name, my first response was something along the lines of “OMG Old skool!”

She then showed me the screen for which I had to decide up to three types of jobs that I was interested in looking for. I decided that “dragon fairy guardian” was probably not on their list so I went for social and digital media given that this will be the theme of my soon-to-be-completed ‘digital CV’. That wasn’t on their list either so I think we selected something to do with computers and management. The others I selected involved working in what we now know as the civil society sector, previously the voluntary and community sector, and the final one being local government.

Being in the process of coming off medication and having Monday afternoons for my post-16 teacher training course meant that I was able to state that I was not yet looking for full-time work. i.e. I want to complete my course and I want to come off the medication before making myself available for full-time work should a decent opportunity arise. But I want to keep my options open. Some of you may have come across the concept of a ‘portfolio career’ – where you have a variety of different things on the go to the extent that it is difficult to describe a person by a given occupation. This is something that I would like to explore – if anything because there are a number of projects that I’ve got lined up that I would like to work with a range of different people on. Hence the challenge of dividing my time up in a semi-organised manner. The problem with this sort of mindset is that the job centre’s systems don’t seem to allow for this. When looking at the screen the lady showed to me I refrained from saying “Get out of the ’90s!”

The final problem of me not fitting the boxes in the job centre is that all of the evidence I need to provide has to be on paper. I don’t have a printer, rarely have the need for one and don’t want to bother with the expense of getting one so early on. (I’ve got my eye on an A3 printer/A3 scanner, but am waiting for the January sales as I want this for creative rather than job hunting purposes). I did say to her that all of the stuff that I was being asked to do I could record on my phone and hold the evidence there. Cloud computing has still to hit this part of the civil service.

General thoughts and possible improvements to the system

Now, some of you may respond by saying that job centres predominantly deal with people who are not nearly as skilled and qualified as someone who has had the educational and working background that I have. In the grand scheme of things perhaps. But given the scale of graduate unemployment as well as the familiarity that younger people have with digital and social media, the risk is that there will be growing numbers of people will job centres as anything but. Rather, they run the risk of becoming somewhere that they have to put up with in order to get their benefit payments as opposed to somewhere that can actually help them find work.

But all is not lost.

I’ve seen a number of excellent examples of local councils bringing together a number of their public service providers and basing them in single places – “One stop shops.” I’ve not seen one in Cambridge and really think that we could do with one. For example having Cambridge City Council’s housing benefits office based in the same place as the job centre alongside say a health centre and even a library/training centre too. It can be done – I’ve seen it.

I’d also like to see a role for senior family caseworkers who have delegated powers ultimately to “pull rank” in order to get things sorted out. Whether we like it or not, the public sector is a very hierarchical organisation and unfortunately this means that some things don’t get done unless someone of a high enough grade within an influential organisation decides to take an interest. Such is the scale of the problem across the public sector that the Department for Communities and Local Government set up their own ‘barrier busting team’ to help deal with issues that communities are facing.

One big barrier is that social work is not viewed in particularly high esteem by the public – in particular on the back of high profile failures. The funding and work pressures social workers face are also well known across local government circles. In an era of funding cuts, which local council has the resources and the co-operation of other public sector providers to appoint well-paid senior case-workers to work on the front line AND give them the authority needed to secure the day-to-day co-operation of other public sector agencies? (Especially at a time when everyone is watching their budgets).

One of the things that was regularly in the news on the job centre front during my trade union days (I used to be an elected rep for the PCS Union) was news of various cuts at job centres everywhere. I can’t imagine what it must be like working in a workplace that can often become adversarial, where your main aim is to get people into work while you face the continual threat of job losses. There’s also been the regular reports of outsourcing of job centre functions ever since I joined the PCS back in 2004, and the transfer of job centre functions through outsourcing is likely to continue apace.

Given what I’ve mentioned of the job centre’s systems and processes, some might say ‘about time!’ – which is understandable. But is it the right solution to get people not just into work, but into jobs that match their skills, attitude, aptitude and disposition? I’ve been in jobs where I have been hopelessly overqualified and accordingly had the wrong attitude. I’ve also been in jobs that match my qualification but not the right aptitude and disposition. My final civil service posting (which achievement-wise was the most satisfying personally) was one that matched my qualifications, skills, attitude, aptitude and disposition. How do you build matching people to jobs that match all of those things into an outsourcing contract? The statistic that will matter is bums in jobs – irrespective of whether a person is suited to said job.

In terms of other solutions, part of me would like to call for a massive IT upgrade for JobCentrePlus’s systems, but the civil service has… a ‘colourful record’ when it comes to managing IT projects. In fact it’s downright diabolical. The civil service has a very poor record when it comes to outsourcing. But the outsourcing of IT support is something that has continued apace across the public sector and I can’t see this changing.

The other is investing in its people. Many of the ‘front of house’ posts in job centres are administrative/junior grades – AOs and EOs for those familiar with civil service grading systems. My experience today did make me wonder whether JobCentrePlus has been investing enough in training its staff in terms of the sorts of jobs and careers that are out there, those where opportunities are growing and those where they are diminishing. I mentioned earlier that the existing system seemed to be completely oblivious to social and digital media as areas of possible employment. (As is my general disposition, my criticism is for the institution and those at the top that run it, rather than those on the front line who, in general alone have very little influence to effect a cultural change in an organisation).

Finally, there seems to be little systematic engagement between job centres and recruitment agencies – which is a shame. In an ideal world, as soon as I had selected the three work areas that I was interested in, a half-decent system would have picked up the contact details of both agencies and websites (as well as firms recruiting) that specialise in those fields to say “These are the agencies, websites and organisations that you need to look at.”

I’m due back next week where I have to show what steps I’ve taken – stuff that I’ve signed up to as saying I’d do between now and then. I also start the first class of the teacher training course too. Cambridge at this time of year also begins to wake up as the university terms kick off again. (Many organisations go into hibernation over the summer months). Here’s hoping things across a number of fields will become more interesting – whether it’s turning up to events, getting involved in some local organisations and even finding something workwise that pays the bills.


15 thoughts on “Signing on

  1. I’m further down the same system. The system isn’t set up to deal with people with degrees or specific work experience. I worked in local govt for 5 years. But when I signed on for the first time, my adviser told me it wasn’t worth putting that down as one of my job options because there was nothing available in the area due to “redeployment”. It does get better, though. Today, I was referred for Training, which means I’ll get support and advice to go self employed. Unfortunately, due to having a job for 3 months this year, I don’t qualify for the New Enterprise scheme, which would have given me a loan of capital to get started on my own. I HATE being on the dole. I HATE relying on the state for a living. I don’t have savings, and I can’t take the risk on my own, much as though I’d like to. They’d pay me less in a loan than they would in benefits before I find someone willing to take a chance on employing me.

    One good thing recently is that I have been assigned a really good Advisor, who understands my industry (creative arts) and knows how bloody miserable I’d be in one of the umpteen admin jobs I’m constantly applying for. I’m aware that some of the JCP staff feel constrained by the legislation – they don’t feel they can do their job to the best of their ability, because they have to tick boxes, instead of helping people find the work that will make them happy – and therefore the work which they will stay in and which will keep them from falling back into the benefits system. Lots of people can work – they WANT to work. They just lack the roles to be able to.

  2. I just write it on the form they gave me. My first job was as a supervisor in a UBO 30 years ago. I worked ever since until last year. But today ( I am almost at the end of my 6 months – I delayed signing on until the last minute) I had to provide chapter an verse – where I saw a job advertised, where it would be if I got it and who the employer was. It was all recorded on the system – even though its getting the job that counts not making useless applications. It is difficult to get some job centre staff to understand that if a job says you “must have experience working with horses” you won’t get it if you haven’t got that experience. Other just look at my application record and say “it’s Armageddon out there” – I will be glad when I can get back to job hunting in my own way although the rbel in my says I should keep signing on just to “count”.

  3. Hi. I’m further down the road from you too *waves from the distance* and I must say that you saying that you weren’t available for full time work yet (teacher training and getting better)made my heart sink, I hope they don’t hold it against you and withhold your money 😦


  4. Interesting article. I worked in welfare rights advice for 14 years until job related mental health problems forced me out. I recognise quite a lot of this from both an advocate role and as a service user of JC+.

    I actually claimed Incapacity Benefit because I really was (and am) quite ill. On one hand I had an advantage because I already knew the system better than most of the people operating it. This helped a little in offsetting the fact that my brain didn’t work.

    Amusingly, my initial ‘Pathways to Work’ interview was taken by a woman who I’d last seen taking the minutes VERY subserviently to some local managers who I was meeting with to discuss a new policy for JC+ dealing with customer representatives, when I had been working. Irony central.

    Speaking of which, despite the rather huge emphasis on ‘partnership’ working it was a huge issue getting JC+ to co-operate with as welfare rights advisers. We tried allsorts of things including drawing up accredited names and phone number lists. Senior local managers would agree such things but it rarely if ever got cascaded down effectively. And people would move on pretty quickly so you usually found yourself back at square one every 2 or 3 years.

    In addition there wasn’t exactly a culture of trust between organisations. I’m not sure whether having someone of ‘rank’ would have made any difference. Even though we were a local authority team we were generally regarded as trouble causers and unfortunately the negative attitudes towards claimants are not as uncommon among JC+ workers as you’d hope. Those sticking up for them created more work and were often held with some suspicion.

    In fact, it was difficult enough for housing benefits office staff to interact with JC+, even though they effectively had to administer benefits together in some cases. There would be a direct access terminal for JC+ systems in the HB office but the number of people who actually had access would be in single figures. JC+ was reluctant to allow greater access because of security fears.

    Your comments on IT and outsourcing are extremely well made. Tax Credits suffered very badly from this. To be fair they are huge systems and there are real security issues. At least you can now make claims for some benefits online. I even managed to send them an email the other day. The right office got it too.

    As far as people are concerned I think you are correct that the frontline is mostly covered by the most junior staff. In addition, the DWP has had a huge transition over the last 10 years or so from direct contact to call centre for the majority of contacts. Workers rely on computer scripts rather than training and experience because it’s much cheaper. But you can imagine what it does for job satisfaction and dedication to customers.

    You’ve heard of Pareto’s Law? My feeling is that DWP/JC+ are entirely happy with c80% satisfaction rates and have largely decided to save money by not worrying too much about the 20% of ‘difficult’ cases which cause the larger share of the work. So millions of routine cases are dealt with quite satisfactorily but, if you’re one of those difficult cases, you were often shoved to one side and it extremely difficult to get anything done for them. Just getting a case passed to the Tribunal Service was a battle, then you of course had their bureaucracy to deal with.

  5. @Andy

    Cross-departmental information is non-existant. I applied for JSA 3 months ago, and have been claiming for that length of time. I ticked the box online which said I wished to claim for Council Tax and Housing Benefit at the same time. No one has been in touch regarding thKeepiese benefits. Nothing. At. All. I look on it as a challenge. Keeping 2 people on less than £110 per week means I have no fear of the unknown. It wouldn’t be hard for me to make more than that on my own.

  6. As an AO trying to get finance to sign off on an emergency payment is a PITA. Write it with the wrong pen and they’ll send it back. No wonder then that claimants, sorry, “customers” get frustrated or even angry.

    On the other side of the desk, I’ve been given a loud b****cking in front of other claimants for being 5 minutes late for an ESA appointment (due to body malfunction, which can’t be unusual for people on the sick).

    Perhaps they wouldn’t need security guards in Jobcentres if benefits claimants were recognised as people in need and not treated like petulant children.

  7. Nice post PBB, full of empathy and optimism for a better deal.

    I had to sign-on in Mar after 22 years in employment. I signed in at one of those ‘one-stop’ shops. My experience was similar, only more guards. And the ‘claim adviser’ had just been notified of her redundancy so we had something to share. I knew which Standard Occupation Code I’d fit into because previously I had been a “2423 Management consultants, actuaries, economists and statisticians” specialising in economic development and labour markets.

    I ‘m not sure my new adviser friend liked my insight though. We talked about the need to complete the fortnightly ‘seeking work’ form and what would happen after 13 weeks of looking. She told me that I’d have lower my expectations but she couldn’t tell me how low this might be, although I would be expected to look far away from home.

    I live in Liverpool but asked her to do a search UK-wide: she found an opportunity in Norwich. I have would have to consider such opportunities she said. What about my partner, who has a job, and my children that have social ties, would they have to move too? That was my choice, she informed, just like choosing a career in “2423 Management consultants, actuaries, economists and statisticians” was my choice. Yes, just like choosing a career as a “claim adviser.”

    It registered momentarily with her, then she proceeded with my claim while suffering through her own cognitive dissonance. I felt both awkward and angry: I shouldn’t have put her in this situation; the government (or more specifically the people who lead the 3 estates) shouldn’t have put us in this situation.

    I didn’t last very long signing-on. The fortnightly episode was not to my suiting. They were incapable of helping me, and the 13 week deadline was looming. At week 8 I un-signed-on and registered as self employed so I can pay my class 2 NI stamp. I’m not actually self-employed but I will need the stamp. Next week will be week 28 and nothing much on the horizon.

    The unemployment welfare system is basically ill-designed. The Dole was designed for a different age, when the brunt of economic catastrophe was paid for by the labouring classes. It has been meddled with over the years to disrupt the resilience that formed in communities that found welfare was a solution to life after the labour market mis-match created by the onrush of globalisation and its mis-management by neo-liberalism. I’m not sure that a different consumer experience will change this.

    I did learn something though, when I used to sign on the old UB40 I used to go to a cubicle, each was enumerated 1 thru 6 (or whatever) . I assumed this what “box 1” meant. This time round I realised that my ‘dole card’ actually got put into ‘box 1’ on my arrival. Such are the benefits of transparency!

    Hope it all works out for you.

  8. frankly, I will feel sorry for the staff for working somewhere violence happens when they stop provoking it by treating claimants like scum and using the dual threat of loss of income and assault by the guards to stop any questions or protests.

  9. I signed on a couple of days ago. One of the most horrifying aspects of it all was being able to listen in on a discussion of a person’s financial situation/mental health problems. I volunteer with a CAB and it would be a bit like having a discussion with a client in reception. It was utterly invasive.

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