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.
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.