Hello: Which Service, Please?

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Joseph Cornell was an American Surrealist. Possibly less known than Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst but a significant, if invisible, contributor. Cornell worked with assemblage and collage to build tiny Wunderkammer of places he had never visited or people he had never met. Much of his life was defined by caring for his mother and disabled brother. Yet, he managed to keep in contact with international artists and produce a body of work that recycled once beautiful objects into things of beauty and wonder. Cornell worked in a cultural parallel to the creation and production of computer systems: he reused and recycled in innovative ways. He transformed the discarded into desirable objects which tell stories appealing to Art Collectors – works have been sold for $5.3m despite Cornell living in relative poverty for much of his life. Caring has always been costly. 

The Government Digital by Default Strategy seeks to emulate the kind of amplification of effort that Cornell achieved. Published in November 2012, the Strategy has fourteen illuminating action points that define what it is the Government seeks to achieve. In general, the strategic direction being taken is one of transforming government into a flat, lean, low cost, machine; of eliminating anything superfluous to the delivery of the task; of reducing spending by up to £1.8Bn a year; moving all Government Services to a single website. The entire strategy seems utterly marvellous, aspirationally wonderful and easy to achieve in 2012. By 2013 the shiny glint was gone.

Investigation had found that 18% of the population were not willing to go online at all although 6% might be persuaded. This was not deemed to be a death knell for the Strategy because Action Point Nine of the Strategy specifically states, “This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.”

A commitment that was rolled out to the seven key Departments who handle the majority of Central Government transactions: HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Department for Transport (DFT), Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Home Office. 

HMRC, being the Department that does most online transactions – and has done even before the Digital By Default Strategy – had a perfectly functional identity checking system. This system had been working and refined since before the debacle of Labour’s Identity Card. Indeed, the HMRC identity check was an aspirational blueprint for the Identity Card. When the Cameron Government came to power, the Identity Card was dumped and, immediately, private companies such as Experian, Equifax, Barclays and others were invited to become “Identity Services Providers”.

Identity Services Providers use the Electoral Register, your credit history, your outstanding debts and your payment history to determine a credit score. For people who use cash – through necessity or decision – this Credit Score is useless. For example, a person who has never had a credit card will fail to have an accurate credit score and a person who buys a house in cash will never have a good credit score. The entire industry of credit scoring is based on the idea that a company can collect all the relevant financial information about someone and be certain the information is correct. Indeed, the early Credit Scoring Industries gained exemptions from the Data Protection Act 1984 to ensure they could collect private information without penalty.

Over the decades the number of people for whom Credit Scoring Industries have accurate information has stabilised at about 30% of the population. Which means, in the shiny world of Digital By Default the Government’s privatised Identity Service Providers cannot identify 30% of the people who need to be identified in order to use Government Digital Services. This is a stark contrast to the HMRC identity checking which identified everybody who participates in the Economy with a success rate of over 97%. 

Digital By Default has a grand set of objectives. Many of them are aimed at reuse and recycling of information in order to flatten Government hierarchies – to shrink the State. Many of them are twaddle that looks good on a Management Consultant’s report but fail when exposed to reality. For example: Action 03 All departments will ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills immediately fails when the development is outsourced. Specialist skills take time to nurture and develop.

Exactly like Commercial Companies, the Government has no desire to pay to train or pay to develop those skills. Which means a rash of Contract Workers and increasingly unfair and unreasonable contract terms. Such as defining Contract Workers as being Workers and therefore to be taxed as Workers but without having any of the Rights associated with Workers because they are contractors. In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor niggle. It is, however, a minor niggle that is amplified by technology. Contractors move on seeking the highest payer and leave without completing work and only complete work defined.

The debacle of the Universal Credit Computer Systems demonstrates that poor Management and unreasonable treatment of Skilled Workers ends badly. The Universal Credit System works as defined and has no flexibility to work otherwise because the desire to shrink the State and do everything cheaper overrides any design skills that exist in appropriating, reusing and recycling existing systems. 

The single biggest failing of Digital By Default is that it has been colonised by Nudge Theory. The default of digital is a policy lever that the Government can pull and magically people will be nudged to use the service and so the non-digital alternative will never be required. Which has then informed the reduction of the number of Civil Servants – regardless of practical necessity – in a masterly exemplification of the lump of labour fallacy.

The truth is that the Government has failed to genuinely engage with the Digital By Default Strategy for a wide range of ideologically driven reasons which fetishise Business Best Practice but fails to engage by following one of the stated aims of the Strategy: Departmental and transactional agency boards will include an active digital leader. 

When it came to the Northern Irish Border, the Government simply stated that there would be a technological solution in place. When the European Union asked the most basic of design questions the entire claim fell apart. Not because the European Union was seeking to frustrate anything but because the Government is profoundly ignorant of what Digital actually means. By insisting that Leadership is needed they have circumvented the precise thing that is essential to every digital strategy, public or private: delivery.

The aim of the Strategy: Departmental and transactional agency boards will include an active digital leader only works if All departments [will] ensure that they have appropriate digital capability in-house, including specialist skills. Leadership without delivery is like a Shipping Line without Ships. 

Fundamentally the Digital By Default Strategy is a sales document which short changes the Civil Service and lays out a prospectus of outsourcing. The failure to build any kind of Management structure to ensure that outsourcing delivered the same services, but digitally, is nowhere more obvious than in Universal Credit. A project that has more than 100,000 transactions, according to Digital By Default, fall under Action Two: Services handling over 100,000 transactions each year will be re-designed, operated and improved by a skilled, experienced and empowered Service Manager” and need to be consistent with Action Nine: “This means that people who have rarely or never been online will be able to access services offline, and we will provide additional ways for them to use the digital services.”

The evidence is that Universal Credit achieves none of this. Universal Credit is digital only – which means Action Nine can never be achieved. However, Universal Credit can be outsourced as it becomes a “simple endpoint service”. People turn up, log on and claim. 

The “turn up, log on and claim” approach does not work. The approach automatically excludes that 18% of the population who are not on line and conflates the 6% who can be persuaded to go on line with the 12% who have no means or interest. The failure of the commercial Identity Service Providers to know who 30% of the adult population are raises the exclusion to somewhere between 18% and 48%.

The kind of fetish of Big Data that accompanies the “turn up, log on and claim” approach is quite particular. It is the fetish of demanding more information than is needed because the process fails with insufficient information and can filter out information.

It is normal behaviour in systems development: see what data can be gathered and then move backwards towards what is required; but in Big Data the approach is to overcollect and then see how to monetise the non-essential data. Which has been the essential business model of Credit Checking Agencies who grew out of Catalogues such as Great Universal Stores deciding to monetise their record of debts. 

The “turn up, log on and claim” approach needs a complete and accurate record of transactions to exist in order to work. That means an accurate record for every person of working age – for working age benefits – in order to function effectively. It is not some end point service like a credit check which simply says yes or no to a question such as does this person have a credit score greater than X? The Digital By Default approach assumes that the complexity of Universal Credit can be a simple endpoint service.

Which is exactly what technical developers sell to their managers when Big Data applications are developed. It can all be simple because a computer can do that. What is rarely discussed is the question: what happens when it goes wrong? 

Action Fourteen: Policy teams will use digital tools and techniques to engage with and consult the public is a statement that every development project – regardless of the development methodology – proposes they will do: consult the end users. The consultation for Universal Credit has not included the Public. It has included the Think Tanks The Institute for Government – whose board of directors include Morgan Stanley Bankers, Former Bank of England Directors, Conservative Politicians and members of the House of Lords – Centre for Social Justice – whose directors include Conservative Politicians, links to American Right Wing pressure groups, a smattering of the Lords and various Right Wing Politicians.

The Consultation with Think Tanks is, in development terms, consulting with the public. But it is not consultation with the End User Community. Morgan Stanley Bankers are unlikely to need to budget to put a fiver’s credit onto the electricity meter in order to make the benefit work. It is, as Developers might say, a low probability use case scenario. 

Which leaves the entire development of Digital By Default firmly outside of the realm of the End Users and with the System Owners. In other words: Universal Credit is not broken. It does what it is designed to do because it does what the consultation discovered was a requirement. Reflect on those who were actually consulted: Right Wing Politicians and Bankers. The same people who created and sustained the 2007 Financial Collapse. Universal Credit does what it is designed to do: eliminate Government Employees, lower the cost of benefits – most frequently by delaying or refusing them – and shrink the use of Government Services in order to have “small government”.

The Digital By Default strategy documents outline the way in which the technical aspirations of the technically illiterate Government can be nudged into amplified effect so that small decisions cascade rapidly, significantly and with increased impact.

The most significant problem with the Digital By Default strategy has been appallingly naive management. From the pathological good news culture at the Department for Work and Pensions that resulted in the delay, cancellation and restarting of the Universal Credit development project to the ending of the existence of the Vehicle Levy Disc. The good news culture of the Universal Credit development project is well documented; but, the more telling is the Vehicle Levy Disc. Coincident with the abolition of the Disc, the revenue from Vehicle Excise Duty began to fall. The loss of the Disc acting as a nudge for people to not commit to payment.

The badge of good citizenship that was embodied in the historic tax disc was simply dumped because the digital service neither needed the disc nor wanted the additional cost of posting out discs. It was a money saving measure that resulted in the loss of the daily nudge: you will need to pay the car tax in three months… …two months… …the end of this month… 

The truth is that the Digital by Default strategy has resulted in services which are Dysfunctional by Default. The public that is consulted is not the End User Community but groups with an ideological, financial and career limiting interest in the outcome. When Cornell built his assemblages he did so in the kitchen, at night, after his brother and mother were safely resting. His biography tells how he would use an open oven for heat and would clear all of his work away before his family awoke. What he understood was the weaving of mythology, the evocation of symbolic exchanges from deep within his audience.

The work of Cornell illustrates that it takes significant efforts to achieve things where there are limits, barriers and powerful, inescapable, constraints in place. There are very few people who can claim the same Artistic Success as Cornell along with the limiting domestic circumstances. Many female artists have been crushed by the existence of the Domestic and there are very, very, very few significant artists with the same constraints as Cornell. 

Which is not to make broad, unsustained, claims about the History of Art but a highlighting of the very real fact that the political policies of the Government are formed and limited by their life experience. The failures of Universal Credit are illustrations that the theory of human nature and existence that underpin the approach are not really applicable to society. The truth is that Computer Systems amplify symbolic, social and political exchanges and can make social existence, literally, unbearable by enforcing political decisions and symbolic exchanges that are utterly alien.

Computer Systems are not just numerical calculation machines but also culture machines. Life is not Digital By Default and where Digital can enrich and enhance Life there is a clear divergence between Government Policy and Life. The underlying drive is to use Digital to remake Society as something that does not really exist. Something that is virtual.

A return to the Thatcherite Mantra: there is no such thing as society. Except, unlike when Thatcher was pandering to the embryonic Credit Reference Agencies, the Government is pandering to organisations who want to monetise all information about everybody. 

The truth is that, Government has ceased to have worldly experiences such as Cornell had. The result is a range of digital services designed to service an ideology which places profit and shareholder value above everything. The system design is already leading to loss of life and to significant patterns of dysfunction in society. Yet, the Digital By Default strategy remains unquestioned. It is leading to wild swings that are, systematically destabilising society and casting us all adrift into the unnatural histories of neoliberalism.

Picture: L’Egypte de Mlle Cleo de Merode, cours élémentaire d’histoire naturelle, Joseph Cornell, 1940.

Article by Hubert Huzzah

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