Is the DWP preparing to bury bad news on the Work Programme?

A leaked letter from Mark Hoban to Coalition MPs tries to move the goalposts ahead of performance data being published.

Headline unemployment numbers have been falling in recent months, giving the coalition cause for cautious cheer. Tory MPs are still wary of formally declaring the economy redeemed from disaster but they have at least some evidence to suggest it is on the right track.

The Labour rebuttal is that the pace of job creation is slowing and that long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high. (This is a tricky area for the opposition, which is always in danger of looking disappointed by good news and, in the quest for political vindication, celebrating misery.)

A big policy question in this area is the performance of the Work Programme, the government’s vast welfare-to-work scheme that pays private and voluntary sector organisations to place people in work. The scheme has been advertised by ministers as a miracle cure to the problem of long-term joblessness and an antidote to Labour’s failure to tackle the issue. Those who work with the Department for Work and Pensions as part of the Programme or in the welfare-to-work sector are less optimistic. They warn that the labour market conditions are not good enough to make the experiment work and that the cash premium for the "hard to place" benefit claimants – those deemed to face the highest barriers to finding work – are not high enough to make the ‘payment by results’ system work. (I wrote a longer analysis of problems with the Work Programme a few months ago here.)

It has been hard to judge the effectiveness of the policy because the DWP has prevented providers from publishing their data on how many people have actually been placed in work. We have had data on the number of people referred to the Work Programme which suggest that not enough of the long-term unemployed are even getting help through the scheme. What he haven’t seen – because ministers have continually delayed publication – is how many people have actually been found jobs and how many are staying in work long enough to trigger the payments on which the providers depend if they are not to go bust. In other words, we have yet to get a clear sense of whether the Work Programme is actually working.

That wait comes to an end tomorrow, when, at last, the DWP will publish the numbers. There are hints already that they won’t be encouraging. I have a copy of a letter (see scan below) from Employment Minister Mark Hoban notifying coalition MPs of the forthcoming data publication. He appears to hose down expectations, writing:

“As the Work Programme supports people for two years or more, it is too early to judge Work Programme performance by Job Outcome and Sustainment Payment data alone.”

That sounds like a pre-emptive admission of failure. Job Outcome data are the proof that people are being placed in work and Sustainment Payment data are evidence of sustainable income for providers. So if “payment by results” is working those are the measures that matter and it is pretty disingenuous for a minister to suggest they aren’t the real story.

Hoban goes on:

“To better explain Work Programme preferences so far, I will also be releasing a number of ad hoc statistics which show how the programme is moving people off benefits  and compare what we have spent on the programme with the cost of the previous employment programme, Flexible new Deal. ERSA, the providers’ trade organisation, will also publish information on how the programme is helping people move into jobs.”

The simultaneous publication of “ad hoc statistics” relating to Labour’s Flexible New Deal (FND) – a primitive version of the Work Programme introduced by the last government - looks like a device to muddy the waters by trying to frame the success of the Work Programme in terms of its cost-effectiveness rather than its impact on long-term unemployment . The FND cost analysis has already been published by DWP here (pdf) so the only new element would be some spin of the numbers to show that coalition policy is doing something similar but cheaper. Even if that is the case it still doesn’t prove that the Work Programme is sustainable or doing what it was advertised to do.

A big data dump is also a classic technique to bury bad news. The letter concludes:

“The Work Programme is designed to be a major improvement to welfare to work support, my goal is to drive forward its effective implementation. I hope you will join me in supporting the programme on the day.”

A major improvement in welfare to work support? When it was launched it was “a revolution in back to work support” helping "millions of people".

It sounds as if expectations are being managed aggressively downward. Maybe I am wrong about this. Perhaps tomorrow’s numbers will show tremendous success in the placement of long-term unemployed people in jobs and a healthy cash flow to Work Programme providers proving that this flagship policy is running like a well-oiled machine. But the tone of Mark Hoban’s letter and the clear intention to camouflage the story suggest otherwise.

Update: Someone with a better knowledge of the Work Programme than me has pointed out another little bit of potential subterfuge. The letter refers to performance data from June 2011 to July 2012, whereas the DWP's own standards for minimum performance are supposed to be measured according to results achieved in a calendar year - so the period that counts for judging whether the programme is working would be June 2011 - May 2012. Of course, if you count a year as 13 or 14 months you can squeeze in a few more job placements and claim the system is closer to meeting the required targets ...

Employment Minister Mark Hoban. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.