Does automation change the citizens’ relationship with the state?


From TV licence stamps to the automatic payment of pensions to PAYE taxation, does the automation of transactions between citizen and state depersonalise the link between the two, and help account for some disengagement?

Since leaving the civil service I’ve had to go through the process of filling out a self-assessment tax return. I’ve never had to do this before – having always been in employment where it was all done under PAYE. Before I went to university, I remember not being happy at finding out just how much had been deducted from my pay packet in my first full-time permanent job. That was my first real insight into why those that call for lower taxes do as they do. It’s even more stark to me now, going through the process of having to account for incomings rather than having your employer doing it all for you and having tax deducted before anything hit your account. Over the years, I got used to the idea of never actually seeing that money. Therefore whenever anyone asked about salary, I thought nothing of the situation where I would quote the headline salary that didn’t reflect the much lower amount that actually hit my wallet.

If you don’t have to think about it, does it mean that it’s not there?

You could say local government is a little like that. So long as the bins are collected, litter is picked up and the main roads remain reasonably well-maintained, few people really think about the detail of what local government does. Well, apart from us ‘Guildhall Groupies’ as one local councillor called Puffles, Richard TaylorChris Rand and the handful of people from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign that attend meetings regularly. Yeah Hashtag #GuildhallGroupies. Might make a badge for Puffles to wear!

The serious point is that few people tend to get worked up about local government unless something essential goes wrong. Yet keeping things ticking over actually requires a huge amount of work. You only have to look at the amount of meetings that councillors have to go to. In Cambridge, part-time councillors have to go to all of this lot. Much of what they do is set out in legislation – they actually don’t have much flexibility. Ditto with some of the responsibilities that local government has. Have a look at this lot.

But without that face-to-face interaction, do we end up taking less ‘ownership’ of what is, or perhaps what was (in the case of Royal Mail) ours to begin with?

Go back 100 years. We may take national insurance deductions for granted today, but back then many people would make national insurance contributions through purchasing of stamps – see here. Imagine having to go to the post office to buy stamps to put on a card instead of having to do things by direct debit. Exactly – you’d become very familiar with the staff at the post office and would give them a piece of your mind if you got regular bad service.

At the same time though, the post office was one of those institutions that became a centrepiece of local communities: People’s financial interactions with the state were one of the things that we had in common as the remit of the state grew to tackle many of the problems that arose with industrialisation. The digital videos I linked to in my blogpost about freedoms (See here) help explain the thinking of society at the time. Note that Beveridge described ‘Freedom from Want’ – with ‘want’ being not having the basic means for a healthy subsistence. (See here). Looking at the rise in demand for foodbanks, where did society and politics go wrong?

This is not to say we should go back to a top-down way of doing things. We live in an increasingly connected world where the levels of automation we take for granted these days were unheard of decades ago. Think in particular of ‘big data’ and the live bus times that can tell our smartphones where buses currently are and how long it will take before they are at our bus stop. (Which makes me wonder what the model of a command economy would be in a world of ‘big data’ – would it/could it have dealt with the inefficiencies that we saw towards the end of the Cold War?)

With the rise of automation, understandably the state started asking why it needed to pay for an expensive network of human-resource-intensive post-offices to pay state pensions when you could do all of it automatically in people’s bank accounts. My first job in a bank before I went to university was effectively made obsolete by automation and the internet. Why have a big bank full of people manually typing information into a computer system when customers could do all of that in their offices or their own homes?

Not having the essential daily tasks to bring people together

Perhaps the school run is one of the few actions where lots of people (but by no means all of them) from a local community can be guaranteed to be at a given place at a given time. One of the reasons the automation of state pension payments was so controversial was the impact on local communities – note this from over a decade ago. The thing is, you cannot easily compare the financial savings to the state with the negative impact on local communities through sets of numbers. It’s like some of the horrible buildings around Cambridge railway station. I don’t like them but I cannot put a monetary figure on what that impact is. Therefore big business wins out. (In South Cambridge, the amount of money invested in new buildings in the past few years is measured in the billions).

Should we try to quantify everything?

Dr Rupert Read of the Green Party – who is standing as a Euro candidate in East Anglia (thus covering Cambridge) says no. In a speech to Cambridge University students recently, he gave a talk similar to this article in the LSE outlining his thoughts on ‘ecologism’. For those of you who want to take him to task over the content, please tweet him here or post in that blogpost’s comment section. Essentially though, he takes strands from conservative thought (as a branch of political philosophy rather than the political party), socialist thought and liberal thought.

Read’s main point vis-a-vis the three main political parties was that they had all turned to neo-liberalism. Rather than working within that neo-liberal worldview – in particular one of citizens as consumers and customers, Read takes a different view; one where we consider what sort of planet we are going to hand over to future generations. Again, more details in his blog article linked above.

What’s this got to do with people and the state?

What reading about it does (in part) is it encourages us to think about our relationship as individuals with this institution called ‘the state.’ It’s one of the things I called for as part of a campaign to encourage people to vote. (See here). It’s often when disaster strikes that people begin to think about their relationship with the state – and get angry when in their view the latter fails. See here with David Cameron and the Christmas floods of 2013. The utility companies in private hands were, 40 years ago under some form of state ownership. If bills got too high, people could complain to their politicians and ministers could pull a few levers to bring prices down. Today, ministers have to beg and plead to big business to be nice to the people. In the 21st Century, having the state setting prices or having politicians sucking up to big business isn’t a state of affairs that many would be happy with. Isn’t there another way?

And at a local level?

This is what I challenged my local councillor George Owers on in a recent response to his comments. (See here). Cllr Owers was correct in his statement of the current status quo – i.e. that the legal responsibilities of different types of local councils are set out in law. In one sense councillors local to me are responding within the existing framework – not least because they have serious legal duties within it. My questions and challenges are coming from both outside that framework and using a medium (social media) that many across large institutions are not comfortable with. But given the challenges we face whether in our local communities all the way up to global climate change, what’s clear is the current structure of relationship between citizen and state is not working. What an improved structure looks like…I’m still working on that.


2 thoughts on “Does automation change the citizens’ relationship with the state?

  1. I don’t think you can solve problems of engagement by forcing transactions into models which are somehow supposed to generated social interaction as a by product. Government transactions don’t operate in isolation and they carry social meanings in an additional sense to the one you focus on here. In the days when I always had a cheque book to hand – because that’s how all sorts of things were paid for – writing cheques to the government wasn’t remotely strange. Then almost everything else moved away from cheques, leaving me to dig out a cheque book once or twice a year, overwhelmingly to pay bits of government for things, at which point it started to feel irritating and old fashioned, not because the government services had changed, but because they hadn’t.

    Your pensions example carries a similar social context. In a world where the dominant way of paying wages was weekly by cash, it made perfect sense for pensions to be paid the same way and the post office was the perfect place to the be the equivalent of the wages clerk. But the dominant (not universal) way in which people get paid for work now is monthly into a bank account. Why would somebody newly retiring expect to see any advantage in switching from that to cash at the post office? And that’s part of the social context in another way. My grandmother did most of her food shopping in a parade of shops, one of which was a post office, and went there several times a week. My mother did most of her food shopping in a supermarket once a week with no post office anywhere near. I do most of mine sitting at home waiting for the supermarket van to turn up, and avoid going to the post office if I possibly can.

    The point of all that is not to argue that local social (and thus political) structures are not important – they absolutely are. But keeping public services locked into the delivery models of the last century while other services change and develop is not a viable way of sustaining communities. So to whatever extent post offices were the centrepiece of local communities (and I think there is quite a lot of rose-tinted hindsight on that), the challenge is to find alternative centrepieces, not to force post offices into a role which no longer has – or can have – the social value or context it might once have done.

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