27 November 2006

Killing with kindness, killing with complexity

Not, in this instance, literally:

More than five million Britons now rely on state aid to live and the number of younger people claiming sickness benefit is higher than anywhere else in the industrialised world, a major new study has found. ... Around £64 billion per year — more than 10 per cent of all public spending — is handed out free of obligations. Spending on benefits, not including pensions, amounts to nearly £80 billion a year, more than is spent on education and twice as much as is spent on law and order. ... The central problem has been the way [Finance Minister] Mr Brown has structured the system to keep a strong central grip on welfare. His design for tax credits means that the UK has the highest penalties for increasing income or increasing hours worked – the poverty trap – of any developed country. Five million Britons on state aid 'Daily Telegraph', 27 November
Anybody who's been on a vacation of more than a couple of months will be familiar with the problem. We return and, after switching the power back on, we have to re-learn how to set and use the finer features of the microwave, the telephone answering machine, the VCR or DVD recorder...and so on. All this electronic equipment was designed by specialists for people (apparently) who will be using it every day and who have the time and energy to consult the voluminous instructions if they take a break.

It's similar to the composers of modern serious music, whose audience consists entirely of other musicians, or the highbrow novelists who write exclusively for the novelists on prize committees. And so it is with the welfare industry. The experts who construct welfare policy are several stages removed from their supposed beneficiaries. The econometrics is elegant, the proliferation of new features is technically impressive, but the result of all the complexity - if the policymakers but cared about it - is a fiscal, social and pyschological disaster.

Here's an idea: why not say, explicitly, what welfare policy is designed to achieve? Express your targets in terms that can be easily monitored and that are meaningful to real people. And if you don't know how to achieve your stipulated goals, don't be embarrassed: just contract the whole process out to a motivated and efficient private sector. Perhaps the UK Government is actually coming round to this way of thinking. The 'Telegraph' article continues:
The report proposes the outsourcing of welfare provision to voluntary and private sector organisations which would be paid on results, in particular for getting claimants into sustained employment.

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