Posts Tagged ‘Public Services and the Welfare State’

Universal Credit and the perspectives of ex-Jobcentre Plus staff

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.


About the Authors

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).

Everyday authoritarianism: an anthropology of citizenship and welfare in austerity Britain

Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, Insa Koch explains how British citizens experience democracy and what grassroots understandings of politics and care they bring to their encounters with the state.

Liberal democracy appears in crisis. From law and order policies to austerity measures to the ‘Brexit vote’, commentators have rushed to explain the current conjuncture. But while many have argued over ‘why’ liberal democracy has taken an illiberal turn, less attention has been paid to the ‘how’ and the ‘what’: to how democracy is experienced by its most marginalized citizens and what it means to them. Personalizing the State fills this gap. Drawing on long-term ethnographic fieldwork on one of Britain’s largest council estates, the book uncovers a legacy of coercion in British state liberalism that unfolds over a longer period and is more encompassing than commonly acknowledged. But this is only half of the story. Citizens have also brought their own expectations to the state that are not easily collapsed with popular support for authoritarian interventions. By foregrounding everyday relations between citizens and the state, the book complicates narratives of crisis that have presented the people as a threat to the democratic order.

A legacy of state control

Council estates are housing developments that were largely built by the state in the post-war decades as housing for the working classes. They are frequently seen as the remnant of a ‘golden’ era of post-war social democracy, a physical manifestation of what T. H. Marshall called ‘social rights’. But the history of council housing also betrays a more sinister story of citizenship-making. Council estates were always intended as class-specific projects that physically separated the country’s working class populations from the middle classes. Those considered to be deserving of council housing – the Fordist working classes – were closely supervised by a paternalistic post-war welfare state. Yet, it was only from the 1980s onwards that classed control came more explicitly to the fore. As Margaret Thatcher pushed for privatisation and neoliberal reforms, so council housing was turned from being a marker of social inclusion (however classed and gendered) to a marker of social exclusion and abject failure. Today, those who live in rented housing on council estates count among the country’s most vulnerable socio-economic groups.

The demise of the post-war welfare state has not resulted in a straightforward withdrawal of the state. Rather, it has been accompanied by the expansion of coercive policies into those areas that the liberal state has typically considered ‘private’: people’s homes and neighbourhood life. Means-tested benefit policies that have made a resurgence since the 1980s require their recipients to live up to the state’s own ideas of what constitutes an appropriate household and living arrangements. Law and order policies, rolled out under the New Labour government in the late 1990s and 2000s, have not only targeted the daily movements and relations of young, mostly poor men; they also potentially place their families’ tenancies at risk, as evidence of ‘anti-social behaviour’ becomes a legitimate ground for eviction from a social housing property. And finally, with the shift to austerity politics since 2010, policies like the ‘bedroom tax’, the ‘benefit cap’, and ‘universal credit’ have pushed families beyond the brink, while at the same time further extending the state’s regulatory reach into people’s homes.

Re-engaging politics

But a focus on top-down control only tells half the story. This book shows how people bring their own expectations to their daily encounters with the state. These understandings are not grounded in the state’s own definitions of deservingness and entitlement but rather derive their legitimacy from grassroots understandings of what constitutes a good person and by extension also a good citizen. At times, grassroots understandings have dovetailed more easily with official policies and practices. This was perhaps most closely achieved in the post-war era of Fordist production when a climate of full employment, relatively high wages, and an expanding welfare state led to a fragile moral union between state authorities and the affluent working class citizens living in council estates. Today, however, people’s attempts to ‘personalize the state’ – to hold the authorities accountable in accordance with their own understanding of what makes a good and hence deserving person – remain frustrated, if not silenced by policies and practices that all too frequently dismiss people’s demands.

This process of silencing is perhaps best illustrated in the case of electoral politics. Decades of political dispossession, driven by the demise of Labour as a working-class party (and which Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum have failed to revive in working class neighbourhoods), have reinforced a sense that politicians are the antithesis of ordinary personhood. On the estate where I carried out my research, voter withdrawal has fallen below levels of 20% in local elections. This is, however, not to say that citizens have disengaged from electoral processes altogether. Take the example of the EU referendum. The estate was a majority ‘Leave’ area. Some people who had never voted in their lives came out in favour of Brexit. But their vote was not a sudden departure from long held liberal values, as commentators have often assumed. Rather, it was a continuation of deeply felt frustrations with those in power. For some at least, it was an opportunity to personalise politics by saying ‘no’ to government tout court: to reject the constitutional structures that had long turned political citizenship into an experience of punishment.

Authoritarianism revisited

Those who have bemoaned liberal democracy’s illiberal turn have often laid the blame at the feet of a certain kind of person: namely the bigoted, authoritarian, and ignorant citizen. For example, in criminal justice circles, liberal commentators and academics bemoan the punitive shifts that policies have taken with popular support. Some have even gone so far as to advocate that criminal justice policymaking should be insulated from public input and debate. Likewise, recent political developments, including the Brexit vote, have been interpreted as evidence of a rise of popular authoritarianism or authoritarian populism in the public sphere. Let me be clear. My intention is not to deny that punitive feelings – whether they are xenophobic or otherwise – exist among the British citizenry. Nor is it to downplay the dangers posed by the rise of the far right in Britain and beyond. And yet, dominant narratives that present the ‘common’ people as a threat to the democratic order run the risk of reinforcing a simplistic divide between a ‘liberal us’ and an ‘illiberal them’ that can only further harden the lines of debate.

Bottom-up engagement might go a long way towards breaking open the impasse. At the most basic level, a grassroots perspective brings into focus the experiences of those who have rarely been heard. More substantively, it provides insights into a particular kind of everyday authoritarianism that has been overlooked in narratives on democracy’s punitive turn: namely, the daily authoritarian actions of a liberal state that has intervened in the most intimate realms of people’s lives, whether this was through post-war paternalistic policies or more recently under austerity rule.

But the state’s own repertoire of deservingness and entitlement never exhausts the imaginations of those at their receiving end. As this book shows, citizens also engage the state on their own terms. In so doing, they express murky, sometimes contradictory desires for a personalised state that cannot easily be collapsed with popular support for authoritarian interventions – or popular authoritarianism – alone. Above all, Personalizing the State exposes then the state’s disavowal of its political and moral responsibilities at a time when the mechanisms for collectivising redistributive demands have been silenced.


Note: the above draws on the author’s latest book ‘Personalizing the State: an Anthropology of Law, Politics and Welfare in Austerity Britain‘ (Oxford University Press, 2018). The code ALAUTHC4 can be used for a 30% discount at the publisher’s website.

About the Author

Insa Koch is Assistant Professor of Law and Anthropology at LSE.

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: Matt Biddulph (Flickr, BY-SA 2.0).


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