Tag: Nudge

The state is policing social security claimants in hospital and via their medical records to find reasons to cut their support

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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officers have been visiting patients in hospital to check if they are actually unwell, a damning new review into the roll-out of universal credit has revealed. This news comes after it emerged that the DWP are in the process of designing an automated system to trawl claimants NHS health records. 

Doctors have already raised serious concerns that social security claimants could be deterred from accessing healthcare after it emerged that the government is to start accessing medical records as an intrusive part of the welfare assessment process. A job advert posted by the DWP shows that a team in Leeds is building a system to “capture information from citizens and present this to DWP agents”. The work is proceeding on the controversial assumption that the consent of patients would make the system lawful. 

However the DWP have told doctors that when people make a claim for disability benefits, they have already consented for medical information to be shared.

GPs and charities said the plans resemble the controversial data-sharing scheme  between the Home Office and the NHS, which prompted outrage after it emerged some immigrants were subsequently afraid to access healthcare, ultimately forcing the government to end the policy.

In response, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, expressed concern that the process would damage the doctor-patient relationship, and “deter vulnerable people from seeking medical assistance when they need it”.

“If the reports are true, the DWP, like the Home Office before them, must not consider GP patient data as an open resource to support them to carry out their duties. We are doctors, whose first interest is the care of our patient: we are not border guards, and we are not benefits assessors.

“We do not hold our patients’ confidential data to help other organisations check their eligibility for welfare, their immigration status, or any other function not related to their health and wellbeing,” she said.

Head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, said the sharing of people’s medical records would breach patient confidentiality and put GPs and other medical staff in the “invidious” position of benefits assessors.

However it seems the DWP are determined to co-opt doctors into policing people who are ill and claiming social security. I raised my own concerns about this back in 2015-16 and have continued to campaign on this issue, raising awareness of the implications and consequences of state intrusion in the health care of vulnerable citizens.

The DWP continually look for reasons to end people’s disability awards, even following assessments that have deemed them eligible. Trawling through people’s medical records presents another opportunity to look for tenuous reasons to cut people’s support claim. 

As does intruding on people who are ill in hospital.

The all-pervasiveness of welfare conditionality and the state panopticon

In 1965, American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb published an essay, The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham, in which she portrayed Bentham’s mechanism of surveillance as a tool of oppression and social control. Bentham’s famous mechanistic and inhumane approach to human lives – the Panopticon – is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher  in the late 18th century. The scheme of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, and asylums. The idea is that people are in constant fear of being scrutinised, and so are coerced or compelled to regulate or change their own behaviour to comply. Bentham described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”. Elsewhere, in a letter, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

The Panopticon is the tool of a deeply suspicious state with a very pessimistic view of human nature. 

Last year, Dr Jay Watts wrote:  “The level of scrutiny all benefits claimants feel under is so brutal that it is no surprise that supermarket giant Sainsbury’s has a policy to share CCTV “where we are asked to do so by a public or regulatory authority such as the police or the Department for Work and Pensions”. Gym memberships, airport footage and surveillance video from public buildings are now used to build cases against claimants, with posts from social media used to suggest people are lying about their disabilities. More and more private companies are being asked to send in footage. The atmosphere is one of pervasive suspicion, fuelled by TV programmes such as Benefits Street and successive governments’ mentality of “strivers v skivers”. 

People claiming disability benefits have often raised concerns that the right to privacy is no longer their own – and this is a deliberate function of an extremely punitive regime.

Mass surveillance has become a norm in developed countries, through both the proliferation of overt measures like security cameras, the use of facial recognition software, but also more subtle and invasive means like data trawling, analysis, segmentation, psychograpic profiling and targeted , tailored ‘interventions’.

Governments, corporations and other powerful entities are able to comb through large volumes of data on specific people or larger demographics in order to gather information on them and exert control over their decision-making and behaviours. Nudge reflects the further development of covert state strategies to scrutinise and  manage citizens’ perceptions and behaviours.

Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, developed the Panopticon as a metaphor for the modern disciplinary society, in which the state constantly oversees the behaviour of the citizens, and he saw it as a mechanistic tool and oppressive system of permanent visibility as a tool of power. Foucault’s idea of panoptic architecture turned it into an omnipresent and insidious institution. It’s true to say that now, the disciplinary “eye of the state Inspector” is upon all of us. But some are scrutinised more than others.

More recently, DWP employees have also found to be interviewing people awaiting NHS treatment to ensure they were on the “right money” and not “abusing the system.” This is a particularly intrusive, oppressive practice, designed to police claims and scrutinise the ever-shrinking criteria of validity for someone’s need or social security support.

The visits were condemned as ‘grotesque’ by a council scrutiny panel in London, where it has emerged that hospitalised universal credit claimants have received shock visits from the welfare officials policing patient’s claims.

Islington’s Policy and Performance Scrutiny Committee, which has been tracking the full roll out of universal credit in Islington since last June, published a review earlier this month, where the information emerged that DWP officers have been pursuing ill claimants while in hospital.

In the meeting on 14 February, concern was expressed that DWP staff visiting claimants in hospital and this added to the stress that patients were already under while in hospital.

The DWP responded that “the visiting team may occasionally visit claimants in hospital but this would be done in a supportive manner and it happened on only a very small number of cases”.

On one occasion, DWP officers visited a person in hospital awaiting an operation because they had missed an appointment,
 reports the Islington Gazette.

The committee’s vice chair, Councillor Troy Gallagher, told the Gazette: “The fact that the DWP send people out to the hospital to interview and pursue people sends the wrong message.

“When people are in hospital they are not there to be chased and it’s not for the DWP to guess or validate if they are well or unwell. I think it’s callous.

“It’s an issue they need to amend quickly because it’s highly stressful and deeply upsetting.”

Cllr Gallagher added: “It’s grotesque and unbelievable.

“If someone says they’re unwell, whatever the reason is, you should always accept that.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Jobcentre staff occasionally conduct hospital visits to confirm people’s bank account or rent details. This ensures we can pay their full benefits on time.”

They added that visits to claimants homes will be made “if necessary”.

The DWP told me “Claimants must inform the relevant benefit office when they go into hospital and when they come out. If they don’t report changes and they’re overpaid as a result, they have to pay back any money they owe. They may also have to pay a civil penalty.

“State Pension will not be affected.

“A stay in hospital affects people’s disability benefit support in the following ways:

“If someone has been in hospital for 28 days, they should stop receiving these benefits:

  • Attendance Allowance
  • Disability Living Allowance (DLA)
  • Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

“If someone is discharged but goes back into hospital within 28 days, the days spent in hospital on both occasions will be added together and if the total is more than 28 days they will lose eligibility until they go back home. They will still be paid for the days they spend at home between hospital stays.”

I was also informed: “Employment and support allowance is paid for an indefinite period as long as the other qualifying conditions are met. If someone is getting income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), certain premiums and housing costs are affected:

  • Severe disability premium will stop after four weeks if someone is in hospital and they lose their attendance allowance, disability living allowance care component or personal independence payment daily living component. If the person has a partner who is not in hospital and who also qualifies for the severe disability premium, they will continue to receive it.
  • Carer premium will stop 8 weeks after the person’s carer’s allowance stops.
  • After 52 weeks, they will lose the enhanced disability premium unless they have a partner who meets the conditions for the premium themselves. They will also lose their work-related activity or support component.”

It seems that documented evidence from doctors isn’t considered sufficient for the DWP to verify that someone is ill and in need of support. People who are ill in hospital are being treated as though they have done something wrong because of the effect their ill health has on their ability to work.

The government claims that disability support such as PIP is “targeted at those most in need”. Yet we see that those who are clearly most in need are being policed constantly and in an inexcusably intrusive, disrespectful way that strips disabled people of security and dignity.

What use is a social security system that is being designed to constantly work against those very people it was initially set up to help? 


 

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Demos say the DWP should be axed, I disagree. Here’s why

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A leading cross-party thinktank has proposed that ministers should consider abolishing the Department for Work and Pensions.

In a provocative paper that marked the start of Demos’ research examining the Department of Work and Pensions, Tom Pollard, formerly of the mental health charity Mind, who has also completed an 18 months secondment to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), illustrates a bureaucracy blighted by “historic dynamics and averse to radical thinking.”

Pollard’s paper identifies three problems with the DWP. First, the department is afflicted by a “benefits lens”, where case handlers perceive employment support as a condition for receiving benefits, rather than a means of enabling claimants to pursue fulfilling work. Where benefits are the carrot, sanctions are the stick. Sanctioning claimants for misdemeanours such as arriving late to meetings creates a “confrontational dynamic of power asymmetries.” In other words, it strips citizens of their autonomy.

Many neoliberals have also claimed that welfare strips citizens of responsibility, though there has been no convincing evidence of this to date. 

Second, Pollard argues the department is impoverished in ambition. DWP staff are often promoted from frontline roles working in job centres. While such expertise is valuable, he argues that staff often seem “incapable of thinking about radical solutions”, and repeat the mistakes of the past, gravitating towards punitive systems of conditionality and sanctions.

These factors contribute to the DWP’s “injured reputation” among frontline users. Productive engagement between case handlers and claimants is dependent on trust. “There’s such a rift between the DWP and hard to help groups that I don’t know how you could get back to engaging on meaningful terms – there’s too much baggage”, Pollard says.

In the thought-provoking paper, entitled Pathways from Poverty: a case for Institutional reform, Pollard explains why he believes that the DWP is institutionally and culturally incapable of making the reforms needed to deliver better outcomes for society’s most vulnerable and sets out a radical new vision for the future of welfare provision.

Most of the work of Amber Rudd’s department could be carried out more effectively by other Whitehall ministries, according to Pollard. He calls for the DWP to be stripped of responsibility for these “hard-to-help groups”, with the health department and NHS helping the ill find work, local government taking over Jobcentre Plus, and benefits and pensions delivered by HMRC. The charitable sector could also be given a bigger role. 

Some criticisms

Pollard critically discusses the culture within the DWP, implying that the key problems and devastating social consequences arising from the government’s welfare reform programme are simply a result of staff attitudes and inept administrative procedure within the department. 

The crisis in our social security system is the result of government’s policies, which have embedded traditional prejudices about people experiencing poverty, and that have led to the institutionalisation of discriminatory practices within the DWP. There is no guarantee that moving the functions of the DWP somewhere else will bring about any change in attitudes and practices, or improved outcomes for people relying on social security as a lifeline. 

The DWP has come under constant fire from many campaigners, academics and charities for serious problems with universal credit, and for the catastrophic work capability assessments of those who are unfit to work. Rudd is attempting to repair The department’s reputation by tinkering with the roll-out of universal credit and fighting with the Treasury to end the freeze on working-age benefits. However, these gestures are nowhere near enough to put the major shortcomings of the system right and to mitigate the cuts to support that univesal credit and other benefits entail. 

The report concludes that while the DWP has been able to “help” people with minor difficulties into employment, the outcomes are “much poorer when it comes to supporting people with more complex needs”, such as the ill, disabled, older people, those with drug and alcohol problems, ex-prisoners and those who are homeless.

Pollard proposes that if the removal of these functions from the DWP proves to be a success, a more comprehensive approach could see the department abolished altogether”.

He says: “If the department as it stands remains at the heart of employment support for ‘harder-to-help’ groups, we will face further years of well-intentioned reforms and programmes yielding disappointing outcomes, because of how they will be formulated and how they will be received.”

The problem is that the reforms are not “well-intentioned”, and the outcomes are not “disappointing”, they are catastrophic. The policies were intentionally punitive, leading to the consequences we see: people experiencing hardship have been punished by as system that was designed originally to support them and mitigate the circumstances of  hardship.

Pollard accuses the DWP of seeing claimants through a “benefits lens”, in which conditions were placed on their payments as a way of forcing them into work. He warns that the department’s reputation among many groups is now so bad that it may prove impossible and expensive to improve. “A bad reputation is far harder to lose than a good one,” he says.

However, the problem is rather much larger than the poor reputation of the DWP. It is the policy framework that determines the set of administrative practices which in turn, shapes the “culture” within the DWP.  It is the distress and harms that are being experienced by people claiming support, most of whom have also paid into the Treasury – that is the most pressing issues here, not reputation ‘damage limitation’ strategies, or an exercise in PR trust building for the government.

Abolishing the DWP, merging it with the Department of Health and involving charities in service delivery, as proposed by Pollard, will send out the clear message that social security is no longer a discrete function or key priority of the state. It also permits the state to withdraw from providing social security.

Responsibility for budgeting for and administering welfare will become diffuse. Placing social security side by side with healthcare is also risky, as it may further stigmatise jobseekers. We have already seen the government consistently stigmatise those who are out of work, implying that unemployment is some kind of psychological disorder. Others, such as Adam Perkins, have even proposed that there is a “genetic welfare trait.” , that runs counter to Conservative notions of “good citizenship”. 

The NHS is also suffering from chronic under-funding. How will it prioritise welfare provision, when it is already struggling to deliver health care, in the face of the increasing rationing of treatments and procedures?

Historically, charities administered welfare. But the provision was patchy and varied from area to area. There were no consistent standards of support for people in hardship. During times of economic recession, charities were often unable to provide people with any support at all, at a time when they needed it most.

Local authorities are now struggling to deliver statutory services because of government cuts. Essential provisions are being rationed as a consequence. There is no guarantee that any additional funding would be ringfenced. We have already seen social services sending vulnerable young people to other areas – sometimes back to their hometown, for example – to shift the burden of cost to another local authority.  The old Poor Law saw parishes moving poor people out of their area, they were pushed from parish to parish, refused ‘relief’ in order, often, to keep local rates bills low.

A recent paper entitled “Dependency, Shame and Belonging” examines the practice of making the poor wear badges from the 16th century through to the compulsory identification of all parish paupers under a 1679 statute, differentiating between those deemed ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. By the late 17th century, magistrates and legislators decided to deter potential badge applicants by making life on the parish as unattractive as possible. Badging became a means of preventing begging and shaming holders, made compulsory in 1697.

The proposal from Demos simply exchanges one form of expensive, intrusive and ineffective bureaucracy with another. How would the Department of health and charities be allocated funds to carry out this publicly funded state function? How would they be held accountable? 

As I touched on earlier, unless the policy framework is also radically changed to one that is supportive, rather than punitive, and to one that isn’t about administering cuts to people’s lifeline support, then the perverse incentives to apply conditionality and sanctions will remain embedded in administration practices. 

A government that does not support a social security programmme – and the anti-welfarism of the Conservatives has been apparent for a long time – is likely to see the shift in responsibillity for delivering social security as a further step in abolishing welfare provision entirely, which has always been their long term aim. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that Demos produced a paper in 2011 advocating reducing the costs of disability benefit by “engaging with the private insurance industry” and proposing that: “reform to encourage individual responsibility and income protection is genuinely of mutual benefit.” The approach laid out in this report builds on the theory and practice of the profoundly antidemocratic ‘libertarian paternalism’ or ‘nudge’ theory. 

Other papers from the thinktank peddle the views of antiwelfarist James Purnell, who, for example, proposed charging interest on crisis loans to unemployed people and pensioners made by the Department for Work and Pensions, which were interest-free, at a rate of up to 26.8% per annum. This was met with great hostility and was blocked by the intervention of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was Purnell who announced the Work Capability Assessment, triangulating the Conservatives. Purnell advocated Unum’s approach to “claims management”, in a bid to cut costs of disability support. (See Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper for more detailed discussion). 

The Conservative’s ideological position has been used politically as a justification to reduce social security provision so that it is no longer an adequate amount to meet citizens’ basic living needs. The aim is to discredit the welfare system itself, along with those needing its support. The government have long wished to replace the publicly funded social security provision ultimately with mandatory private insurance schemesas have some ‘blue Labour’ neoliberals, including Purnell. 

The th empirically unevidenced idea that welfare creates ‘dependency’ and ‘disincentivises’ work has been used as a justification for the introduction of cuts and an extremely punitive regime entailing ‘conditionality’ and sanctions. The government have selectively used punitive behavioural modification elements of behavioural economics theory and its discredited behaviourist language of ‘incentives’ to steadily withdraw publicly funded social security provision, which is the ultimate ideological goal. That is the root of the problem. 

In light of this, the timing of Pollard’s set of proposals is also rather suspect – see The Centre for Social Justice say Brexit is ‘an opportunity’ to introduce private insurance schemes to replace contribution-based social security.

A DWP spokesperson has responded from the government’s crib sheet of crafted statements: “This report is completely misguided and we have no plans to reduce functionality at a time when unemployment is at its lowest, welfare reforms are rolling out across the country and millions are saving for a private pension for the first time. Jobcentres are a local presence yet benefit from a national framework. DWP supports around 20 million people to get into work and save for their retirement, as well as giving stability to those who cannot work, and will continue to do so as one responsible organisation.”

 


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Leaked document reveals how government are micromanaging public perceptions of the government’s austerity programme

daniel-kahneman-quote-nudge

Kahneman’s work with Amos Tversky was a key influence on the development of behavioural economics. Kahneman’s friend and colleague, Richard Thaler, built on their body of work, producing the first text about Nudge. Behavioural economics is a form of neoliberal ‘cognitive credentialism’.

It has increasingly informed political justification narratives, favouring the wealthy and powerful, and presenting a case for imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. It is also used to fuel a tenuous, pseudoscientific and neo-technocratic alternative account of the subsequent growth in poverty and inequality, and the political destruction of the UK’s public services.

The Conservative-led coalition instituted the Nudge Unit in 2010. Although now part-privatised, and seemingly wholly unaccountable to the public, it remains a part of the Cabinet office, too. 

A question we really need to ask is who nudges the nudgers?

A leaked dossier, apparently a joint study by the Cabinet Office and Department for Work and Pensions, states: “Austerity and its fall-out undermined perceptions of competence and the belief that [the government is] acting fairly, openly and with integrity.”

The damning document was accidentally exposed by an unnamed person, revealing it in front of Westminster journalists and photographers. The leak highlights the fundamental disconnect between what people are experiencing and what they are being told is happening by the government.

This is a form of testimonial injustice and part of a wider strategy of epistemic authoritarianism.

The document shows part of a study that has highlighted the poor state of the public’s trust in politics, government and the party in power. It then outlines strategies that are part of an attempt to ‘build trust’ and “improve government communications.” This indicates a shameful government that thinks soundbites rather than a much needed positive change in policy direction is an adequate way of running the country. 

It also reflects the utter arrogance of a Conservative government who think that trust is something that may be simply acquired from the public, rather than earned.

The authors named on the document are Laura de Moliere, the Department for Work and Pension’s lead behavioural scientist, and Catherine Hunt, Head of Insight and Evaluation at the Cabinet Office.

The document shows the governments’ planned use of communication strategies to ‘manage’ public perceptions of the government’s behaviours and their policies. However, the Conservative’s draconian austerity programme has resulted in widespread distress, hardship, harm, and has caused citizen deaths. This document basically reveals the Conservative’s emphasis on political slogans, attempts at subliminal manipulation and gaslighting techniques, as a means of simply maintaining their power. Using language to erode people’s shared sense of reality is also a totalitarian technique of control.

The document shows a government with no intention of changing their prejudiced, punitive policies and the subsequent harms and hardships they are inflicting on the poorest citizens. It demonstrates a profoundly undemocratic government with absolutely no intention of listening to the public, or engaging in a democratic dialogue.

“Acting in the public’s interest” has become another empty, meaningless Conservative slogan, repeated ad nauseam, in much the same way as “strong and stable” was, and before that, “we’re all in it together.”

brazil

Poster from Terry Gilliam’s dark, dystopic film Brazil. It’s a satire, about a hidden,  bureaucratic, totalitarian government, which is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Conservative’s austerity policies have been targeted at the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, while at the same time as the savage cuts were being implemented, the chancellor lavished £107,000 each per year in a tax break hand out to millionaires. We have never been “all in it together”. That was a big lie.

Cameron’s slogan preempted the damage that austerity has inflicted on the UK, because it was known in advance that those policies were going to cause harm. The government have responded to raised criticisms and legitimate concerns regarding the consequences of their policies by using a range of techniques of neutralisation.

However, a few cunning and deceitful linguistic strategies and lies are not going to fool people for long. Sooner or later, the empirical evidence catches up and then overtakes the lies. Peoples’ direct experiences of austerity inform them of the truth. Yet the government is trying to tell them that those experiences are not so. Using a form of political gaslighting – calling people who raise legitimate concerns “scaremongers”, for example – reflects the same attitudes and behaviours of despots throughout history.

strong and stable

Fascism ultimately takes on the contours of whatever national and political culture produces it.

This is a government that has a serious problem in recognising any limits to its authority.

The UK’s democracy recession

The leaked paper explains why several ministers and Conservative MPs have appeared to be using the same crib sheet recently, claiming repeatedly that Universal Credit, for example, is “compassionate and fair”, when that description does not in any way match the evidence. It explains the repeated and unbelievably ludicrous claims that the government make about their commitment to “social justice”,  “fairness”, and that they are “competent” and “tackling inequality” in the context of a policy framework underpinned by conscious cruelty. 

The government have hired specialist coaches to instruct them in how to tell lies effectively, using experts in behaviourist communication techniques of manipulation. We have historically regarded states that employ surveillance and monitoring to screen, rank and change citizens’ behaviour by acting upon them without their consent as “totalitarian”. 

A state that misuses psychology and propaganda to impose conformity on a population regards citizens as a means to an end, to fulfil ideological goals: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”.

The Conservatives have adopted the Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda approach to managing public perceptions and beliefs. Like Goebbels, the Conservatives have adapted techniques in commercial advertising to the political sphere, including the use of catchy slogans and subliminal cues. 

Nudge and behavioural economics more generally has added another layer of strategic and creeping authoritarianism aimed at micromanaging  citizens’ perceptions, decision-making and behaviours to align them with government aims. 

This, of course, completely turns democracy on its head, as I have said on many other occasions on his site. 

dossier

The damning leaked document.

It’s truly remarkable that a government who claims it favours a small state has used public funds to build a massive and private propaganda and behaviour modification empire, without any reference to the consent of the governed. The need to control citizens to such a degree indicates an overcentralisation of  political decision making. 

Ian Lavery said: “Austerity has done more than just destroy public trust, it has destroyed lives.

“The Tory party continues to treat being in government as some sort of cynical PR exercise.

“If they recognise that austerity has been a disaster, they should be focusing on bringing it to an end rather than how to spin it.”

Several of us have approached the government for comment.

However, it will probably take a while for the government’s Strategic Communications Service to finish crafting their response.

Here is the document in full, courtesy of the Mirror

The role of communication in rebuilding political trust

November 2018

Catherine Hunt, Cabinet Office & Laura De Moliere, DWP

1. What does this paper deliver?

This paper provides a definition of trust, based on a review of academic, public sector and media industry publications as well as our own research. It identifies the factors that underpin trust, looks at why trust in the institutions of government is falling and sets out how this affects us as communicators. It builds on the conclusions from our previous paper on trust from April 2018 and recommends a strategy for building trust and improving the effectiveness of our communication activity in the future.

2. Summary and recommendations

The main conclusions that can be drawn from this paper are:

An individual citizen’s trust in government (political trust) is based on his or her perceptions of its competence and whether or not is acting in the public (and the individual’s personal) interest, judged by the values that it governs by.

  • Competence is judged by the presence of five specific behaviours: setting out a shared vision for the future; authenticity; taking perspectives; valuing others’ opinions; and transparency.
  • The core trust values that Government should demonstrate are fairness, openness and integrity

Citizens’ political trust and views of whether it is acting competently and in the public interest is influenced by:

  • Specific support for the political administration in power at any given point in time.
  • Diffuse support for the overall system of government and its institutions

Trust in politicians has always been low. However, the global recession in 2008 and subsequent period of austerity triggered a decline in diffuse trust for the system of government in many Western economies, including the UK.

  • Austerity and its fall-out undermined perceptions of competence and belief that it […] acting fairly, openly and with integrity

Rapid social, demographic and technological changes are […]

As diffuse trust in the institutions of government […]

parties is rising. People who support […]

parliament. This is also true for […]

The decline in political trust […]

which will in turn reduc[…]


(The last part was only partially visible in the photo capture.)

One final comment. I have researched and written a lot over the last few years about the very issues that this leak exposes. I’ve been one of the biggest critics of PR and strategic comms, techniques of neutralisation, the political abuse of psyop techniques and psychographic targeting, behavioural economics and the political use of nudge on a largely unaware and non-consenting public.

In other words, I have told you so.

I’ve linked this psychopolitical governance approach with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the government’s use of similar companies during the last election, and the Leave campaign. The Institute for Statecraft and Integrity Initiative exposure reveals yet another dimension of this hidden, dark approach to governance. It indicates a kind of secret police, employed to uphold and enforce the government’s narrative and ideological aims.

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.

Some voices are eternally relevant.

 

Related

gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1 - Copy
You can read this document here.

You can also read the Civil Service Strategic Communications handbook here

Some of my work:

The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Exclusive: DWP Admit Using Fake Claimant’s Comments In Benefit Sanctions Leaflet

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Rogue company Unum had a profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper – Politics and Insights

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace

The just world fallacy


Defending disinformation against democracy: the Integrity Initiative

Inside the Integrity Initiative, the UK gov’s information war on the public with Journalists Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton and Professor David Miller.

The Institute for Statecraft and its offshoot, the Integrity Initiative, constitute a secret propaganda network tied to the UK security services. They bring together high-ranking military and intelligence personnel, journalists and academics to manufacture and disseminate propaganda serving the geopolitical and economic aims of the UK and those of its allies.

The Integrity Initiative is a self declared ‘charity’, funded by the UK Foreign Office, British Army and Ministry of Defence, which has been described by the Sunday Mail as a right wing infowars unit.

The Institute for Statecraft, which “led” the Integrity Initiative, was traced to this mill in Fife (Image: Sunday Mail.)

Created by the NATO-affiliated, UK-funded Institute for Statecraft in 2015, the Integrity Initiative was unmasked in November after Anonymous hackers released a volume of documents detailing a web of politicians, journalists, military personnel, scientists and academics involved in purportedly fighting ‘Russian disinformation.’

The highly secretive, government-bankrolled “network of networks” has found itself under scrutiny for smearing Her Majesty’s opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘Kremlin stooge’ – ostensibly as part of its crusade against ‘Russian disinformation.’ The Initiative has received more than £2.2million from the Foreign Office in two years to – in one minister’s words – “defend democracy against disinformation.”

The latest leaks indicate that the organisation played a central role in shaping media narratives after Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were mysteriously poisoned in Salisbury last March. It’s notable that many of the draconian anti-Russia measures that the group advocated as far back as 2015 were swiftly implemented following the Skripal affair – even as London refused to back up its blame frame with evidence.

Within days of the Skripal poisonings, the Institute solicited its services to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), offering to “study social media activity in respect of the events that took place, how news spread, and evaluate how the incident is being perceived” in a number of countries.

After receiving the government’s endorsement, the Integrity Initiative launched Operation Iris,’ enlisting the “global investigative solutions” company Harod Associates to analyse social media activity related to the Skripal incident. 

The latest release of hacked documents also revealed a curious link between the Integrity Initiative and Skripal himself – a connection made all the more suspicious by the group’s central role in coordinating a determined and evidence-free  campaign to implicate and punish Moscow for the alleged nerve-agent attack.

One document from July 2018 contains contact details for Pablo Miller, Skripal’s MI6 recruiter, handler and (conveniently) neighbour in Salisbury. Miller, it seems, had been invited to a function hosted by the Institute. The plot sickens.

I have wondered what happened to Yulia Skripal. Worryingly, she has dropped off the media radar.

David Miller, Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies, has said that despite being ignored by the media, leaks from Integrity Initiative have paralysed the operations of this UK-funded covert influence network, and could ultimately lead to its dismantling.

Miller also believes that: “People have a right to know how the Government are spending their money, and the views being promoted in their name.”

I agree. I think it’s obscene that our money is being spent on covert military grade psyop operations designed specifically to micromanage our perceptions of reality and to stage-manage our democracy. 

He adds: “This [leak] has made a mess of [Integrity Initiative’s] operations, they are spending most of their time now trying to fire-fight on the coverage this is getting. And they are not doing essentially what they are being paid to do, which is to counter the Russians.

“The British government is getting bad value for money, if it was ever getting ‘better’ value.”

As part of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, which studies Western attempts to control media coverage of key international events, Miller has played a crucial role in studying the four tranches of data anonymously uploaded and sourced from the previously little-known group, which has been backed by the UK Foreign Office, NATO and Facebook, to the tune of over £1 million per year.

The documents, whose authenticity has not been denied by government, contain details of psyops against public figures, of the manipulation of media coverage from leading outlets, and have also revealed worldwide networks of prominent journalists and academics, secretly engaged to discredit, at every turn, pro-Moscow points of view and left wing political developments.

Despite the refusal by all of those named to either admit their connection or to say that there was nothing untoward in their activities, Miller believes that the exposure has made it more difficult for them to push and publish anti-Russian content.

The Integrity Initiative has waged an information and propaganda war on the public. Yet nothing has been done to address the scandal surrounding this McCarthyist UK government-funded think tank, which has attacked Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-war left and laundered disinformation through the corporate media under the guise of ‘countering Russia’. 

“Most of the people named are trying to pretend that this is not all of great significance, but the revelation of the involvement of the government in manipulating other countries, and the political process in the UK, is extremely damaging for them,”  Miller says. 

Miller has also said that Parliament needs to conduct a more sustained inquiry into Integrity Initiative, and Jeremy Corbyn smears. 

For Miller, the “cardinal sin” from a UK perspective was the smearing of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, as a potential ‘Kremlin ally’ in Whitehall, which means that a state-paid intelligence operation has been manipulating domestic politics.

Miller also points to the absence of coverage of what he calls a “real, genuine scandal” in top news sources, which, he says, are themselves implicated in the scandal fallout.

Miller also sates that, at the very least, this exposure should lead to a crucial national dialogue about the role intelligence agencies should play in public life and in influencing politics.

Why, it’s as if the role of MI6 in the faked Zinoviev letter has habituated the Establishment to maintain the status quo at all cost, including the stage-managing of our democracy, using anti-Russian sentiment as a template. It’s also apparently become such normalised behaviour that it’s hiding in plain view.

“Integrity Initiative are beyond the realms of sense. The activities they are engaged in are morally and ethically dubious, and will certainly – as we can see already – backfire on them,” Miller continued.

“This will result hopefully in the ending of this operation, and if we are lucky, a sensible discussion in parliament about controlling the future of British covert operations.”

Funding shot up to £2.6 million in 2018-19, with £1.96 million from the FCO and the rest from the US State Department, NATO and the American neoconservative Smith Richardson Foundation. Facebook, which plays in integral role in imposing censorship on behalf of the US, donated £100,000. See: UK Integrity Initiative heavily involved in Skripal affair.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has said: “It is one of the cardinal rules of British public life that official resources should not be used for party political purposes.

“So, it is simply outrageous that the clearly mis-named ‘Integrity Initiative’ – funded by the Foreign Office to the tune of £2.25 million over the past two years – has routinely been using its Twitter feed to disseminate personal attacks and smears against the Leader of the Opposition, the Labour Party and Labour officials.”

Andrew Fisher, an aide to the Labour leader, said: “This astonishing story really deserves attention.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “Such clear political attacks and propaganda shouldn’t be coming from any charity.

“We need to know why the Foreign Office have been funding it.”

Isn’t it obvious?

Surveillance capitalism: citizens as a means to an end

So far I haven’t seen anyone make the connection between the exposure of the Integrity Initiative and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Or the fact that the government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of citizens’ money so the Conservatives could target them with personalised dark ads and psyop-crafted strategic comms

As soon as the Conservatives casually announced their ‘behaviour change’ agenda back in 2010, and instituted the ‘Nudge Unit’, a scandal of the type surrounding  Cambridge Analytica/SCL was inevitable. How could anyone expect that an increasingly authoritarian government, somewhat defined by resistance to change, would resist the temptation to draw on ‘behavioural science’ techniques to manipulate citizens’ perceptions, cognitions, behaviours, choices, and ultimately, their voting decisions?

‘Surveillance capitalism’ was the term coined in 2015 by Harvard academic Shoshanna Zuboff to describe this large-scale surveillance and modification of human behaviour for profit. It involves the predictive analysis of big datasets describing the lives, choices and behaviours of tens or hundreds of millions of people, allowing correlations and patterns to be identified, information about individuals inferred and analysised, and future behaviour and decisions to be predicted. This is then used to influence behaviours through personalised and ‘dynamic’ targeted advertising. 

This whole process is refined by an experimental approach – testing a range of variations of adverts on different demographics to determine what works best. Every time we log on we potentially become the unwitting and thus non consenting subject of trials designed to determine how to most effectively extract money from us or to persuade us of something. The common denominator is the covert use of powerful behavioural modification strategies: psyops. 

Our personal data is being used to construct ‘persuasion profiles’, using sets of estimates – based on probabilities – on the effectiveness of particular influence-strategies on individuals, which are also based on past responses to these strategies. Some of these companies are also experimenting with biometrics.

We are led to believe that it is other states that seek to meddle in the UK’s elections. The use of data analytics and psychological profiling to target people on social media with political content, has had a profound political impact, but it remains largely unappreciated. Political campaigning has shifted from being a public process to being a private, personalised series of micro-monitoring strategies, enabled by access to the apparatus and mechanisms of surveillance capitalism. It’s a process that has led to the government regarding citizens as a means to an end – that being simply maintaining power, upholding the status quo.

The Snowden leaks in 2013 concerning GCHQ and the NSA’s covert activities made controversial headlines around the world. GCHQ’s stated aim was to compile a profile of the internet habits of every user on the web.  The Investigatory Powers Act, commonly known as the “snooper’s charter, permits the security and intelligence agencies legal authority to acquire personal datasets from technology companies in bulk, and the UK government is reported to be exploring an agreement with the US that would give British intelligence agencies better access to these databases.

Data sharing between surveillance companies and state security and intelligence agencies is well established. In the US, tech companies have been forced to hand over data about their users to the NSA for some time. When Yahoo refused, they were threatened with a $250,000 fine, every day, with the fine doubling every week that their non-compliance continued, faced with the prospect of financial ruin, they acquiesced.

Clearly, monitoring and surveillance practices have changed the relationship between the citizen and the state, shifting the balance of power and distorting democracy.

It cannot be right for either private companies or governments to use citizens as Pavlovian dogs. Such personalised psychological persuasive strategies seriously undermine the human autonomy that is central to human dignity and democracy.  

Related

 Documents of the “Integrity Initiative” Part 4  – Anonymous (4 January 2019)

The chilling manipulations of the Institute for Statecraft are straight out of the cold war playbook – Chris Williamson, Morning Star Online

Social media is being used to stage manage our democracy using nudgebased strategies

Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Repor–  House of Commons
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee 

The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations – The Intercept

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman

The government hired several murky companies plying the same methods as Cambridge Analytica in their election campaign


 

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Hello: Which Service, Please?

l-egypte-de-mlle-cleo-de-merode-cours-l-mentaire-d-histoire-naturelle-1940.jpg!large

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

Calculus Of Libertarian Paternalism

Max Ernst

German artist Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) incorporated a lot of sophisticated mathematical ideas into his works. Indeed, many Surrealists and Dadaists of the Anti-Tradition had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and represented mathematics in a variety of astounding ways.

The 1942 picture, “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly” shows a Young man observing a fly, through Euclidean triangle eyes. The fly executes a complex flight path leaving a trace behind it. That trace criss-crossing itself creates a large number of Non-Euclidian triangles. Quite literally, the Young Man is looking at a world with eyes that are utterly different to the reality of the World.

In mathematics, there are broadly three kinds of triangles: Hyperbolic, Euclidean, Elliptic. They each have three sides meeting at three corner angles and those features make them into triangles. An elliptic and hyperbolic triangle will not have corner angles adding up to one hundred and eighty degrees. Where anybody supposes that all triangles can only have angles adding up to one hundred and eighty degrees their calculations will be wrong for two types of triangles. Seeing the world through Euclidean Eyes is much the same as seeing the world through an ideological lense. Especially if the World has a different geometry. Looking at the Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly illustrates all three kinds of triangles and that gives resonance to the idea that the Young Man is intrigued. Anybody would be intrigued at the prospect that the World has hidden depths.

The assumption that all triangles are the same is wrong; but, not something that overly worries people. For enough practical situations, the Euclidean Triangle is acceptable. Good enough for Government Work. It seems obvious and has an intuitive appeal. People see triangles as having straight edges and one hundred and eighty degrees of angles. It makes sense. It is a default pattern of thought. It is what nudge theorists call choice architecture. No matter what you choose your choice will be determined by the assumption that the angles will always add up to one hundred and eighty degrees and that lines are always straight. It is the kind of inflexible thinking that Politicians of all Parties excel at: straight talking, clear thinking, up front. Sadly, the truth is the inability to address the variety in the world makes those politicians inflexible, authoritarian, and even counter-productive.

The inability to accept that, even if you do not know exactly how they work, there are Non-Euclidian triangles is something that prevents living in a world of surprises. Which is not to say that every surprise abolishes all that you know. This is a phenomenon that politicians of a certain sort use repeatedly. Mental gymnastics that present them as being flexible, dynamic, innovative where, in fact, they are inflexible, dull authoritarians. Nowhere is this more useful than in Paternalism.

Paternalism, in essence, tells the world that there is on kind of triangle. For enough practical situations, we can assume that Euclidean Triangles are the only Triangles. These situations do not include the sophisticated situation where there is rapid change and the world enters uncharted territory. Paternalism is not good at uncharted territory.

Paternalism is a political idea of limiting liberty or autonomy in a manner intended to promote the good of a person or group. That limitation of behaviour might be against or regardless of the will of a person. The Paternalist expresses an attitude of superiority: this is the correct way to do things. As a political idea, Paternalism has been unfashionable since the end of the Second World War. There is a small step from table manners to total war.

Telling people, especially people who are increasingly educated, that there is only one kind of triangle is nonsense. Paternalists classify themselves as soft or hard, pure or impure, moral or welfare; and, since the advent of nudge theory these have all been wrapped up into the notion of Libertarian Paternalism. Broadly Libertarian Paternalism is Paternalism where the subject of the Paternalism is influenced in their choices in a way that will make them better off, as judged by themselves. Libertarian Paternalism is about getting the whole world to buy into the notion that there is one, and only one, kind of triangle.

Which makes those who do not accept the nudge, metaphorically, into the wrong kind of triangle. Given there are three general kinds of geometry – Euclidean, Hyperbolic, and Elliptical – there is a two in three probability that a randomly selected triangle is the wrong kind of triangle. Which has a curiously powerful historical resonance for some people. Judging that a nudge is wrong for me places those with judgement in conflict with the Paternalist and the inevitable hardening of whatever powers the Paternalist possesses takes place. Libertarian Paternalism cannot help but become Authoritarian. Paternalism trumping Libertarianism for a very simple reason: Paternalists propose rule escalations and either the Libertarian accepts the escalation or the Paternalist escalates the coercion. There is no real free choice.

The modern paternalism has branded itself as nudge as if there was something harmless about it. In reality nudge relies on cognitive biases. There are around one hundred cognitive biases that have been identified by psychologists. These are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement in other words: ways in which we assume we know what kind of triangle we are looking at. These cognitive biases result in fairly predictable outcomes. Nudge Theorists spend a lot of time designing decisions for Citizens to make around these cognitive biases which result in decisions that are not really free choices and may not even be rational. Indeed there is often a payoff for the Paternalist in having an irrational choice: the Citizen has made a choice and has no insight into why. Which ensures the Paternalist can narrate social reality simply by saying, “this is why you chose that”.

The list of cognitive biases is long and they are effective means to nudging people into taking the right decision. So, for example, the Default Effect is where, given a choice between several options, the tendency to favour the default one. This is frequently seen in computer systems where, for example, the default language is US-EN and needs to be changed. The subtle impact of this, for English Language Speakers, is that not changing the default US-EN to GB-EN, for example, results in software that is understandable but drives language use towards American semantics.

Then there is the Framing Effect: drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented. So, for example, using US-EN and GB-EN rather than American English and British English helps to drive the conclusion that these are, somehow, dialects of the same language with equal linguistic value, rather than diverging languages in a struggle for existence. The list of cognitive biases is a list of ways to influence people: framing software use in US-EN has the subtle effect of making software be perceived as American, even though America is not the biggest writer of code in the world.

Cognitive biases are about getting things done: decisions made. They are not about rational decision making but about getting things done. In the word of the Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they are about bullshit. The use of cognitive biases is not about saying something true or false but about getting things done. It is about Action. The principle of action replacing though has been central to the development of Totalitarianism for at least a century.

The danger of Paternalism is that it ceases being benevolent and becomes Total. In the practices of Nudge there is embodied a subtle yet obvious flaw: those doing the Nudging are not immune to the cognitive biases they use. They see the entire world as Euclidean Triangles – which, in a world with Elliptical and Hyperbolic triangles, amounts to confirmation bias. Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Being in positions of power, those who Nudge are using Confirmation Bias to inform their creation of a Framing Effect and a Default Effect. The outcome is that policies are not evidence based, rational and democratic but prejudice based, irrational and paternalistic.

When Sunstein and Thaler proposed that Libertarian Paternalism was a good idea, they were doing so from a peculiar position of having access to legal, contract and finance skills. Libertarian Paternalism would, it seem, work in a community that had replaced society with enforceable contracts.

This kind of notion seeps into the way the Department for Work and Pensions treat Claimants. The Unemployed become Job Seekers thus taking advantage of the cognitive bias of focusing; and, the Job Seeker has a Job Seekers Agreement which, it turns out, is an actual contract for which the Claimant must fulfil all conditions, however arbitrary. This is where we begin to see how Nudge is also nudging the Department for Work and Pensions.

Job Seekers are viewed as being lumps of labour that can be switched in and out of the Economy mechanistically. This amounts to the cognitive bias of functional fixedness. Which separates the Claimant from any access to legal, contractual or finance resources implicit in the Sunstein and Thaler presentation of Nudge Theory. Which reduces the interaction between the Department and the Claimant to a Paternalistic relationship. Indeed, the nature of that relationship is reinforced by the elimination of legal aid: there is no recourse to effective contract drafting for the Claimant and the whole relationship is determined by who has the deepest pockets.

The Department of Work and Pensions is the clearest example of how Nudge becomes Authoritarianism. The elements that make Nudge workable have all been eliminated. There is no possibility of each Claimant negotiating a realistic Job Seekers Agreement and so the agreement will be dictated, to save time if nothing else. This highlights one of the cognitive biases of the Department: illicit transference – the notion that what is true of one claimant is true of all Claimants or what is true of Claimants collectively is also true of Claimants individually.

Because the Department of Work and Pensions has abandoned the evidence based work in favour of Observer-expectancy “Randomised Control Trials” – there is a veneer of scientific respectability. Yet, the Randomised Control Trials do not actually stand up to scrutiny. Which is evidenced by the consequent Departmental use of statistics. The Department of Work and Pensions has a poor reputation for statistics – being disciplined by the National Audit Office on several occasions – which highlights the Department’s predilection for cognitive biases such as Zero risk bias, Unit Bias, Stereotyping, and Status Quo Bias.

The clear outcome is that, once the capacity for all parties to a nudge to act in a libertarian fashion is removed, all that is left is Paternalism. It is a choice. A choice made in a choice architecture: the choice is transferred from the Claimant or the Citizen to the Department or the Government. Nudge is little more than the choice architecture of authoritarianism. This is no more evident than in the choice of Austerity.

The outcome of Austerity has been the rise of social murder – the killing of reasonably well defined groups such as Claimants – often at considerable cost, in order to sustain a cognitive bias. The multiple cognitive biases, of the Tories, used to support the claim that Markets solve everything are little more than the denial that there is more than one kind of triangle. Independent observers – such as UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston – have pointed out that Austerity is a choice that could be reversed ‘overnight’ for little cost. It is a choice. Made within a choice architecture created by Authoritarians.

The social murder carried out since 2010 is in the process of transforming society. Obedience is being presented as the default choice. In reality, the cognitive bias of System Justification, is driving the political, economic and social destruction of society and social murder is an acceptable outcome because “society will be reformed”.

It is the same notion that instruction to action – of taking back control – of keeping calm and carrying on – all signify. It is about remaking society in the image of some historical bubble: the cognitive biases of False Memory about some golden age, possibly in the 1940s or 1950s, where the world was somehow, magically, better. It was a world in which there was only one kind of triangle. It was also a world in which Max Ernst was fleeing totalitarians who wanted to kill him for painting the wrong kind of triangle.

Picture: “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly”, Max Ernst, 1942.

Article by Hubert Huzzah

The Choice Architecture Of Poverty

Special Rapporteur Philip Alston has presented a United Nations Report on Poverty in the UK. The UK Mainstream Media have not really excelled in analysis or presentation of the findings. After almost a decade of Nudge by Press Release, the Guardian has missed the vital message while the BBC has simply recycled old Government Press Releases. The Mainstream Media seem to be shy about embracing the most damning finding of the report.  

In December 2017, Professor Alston carried out a visit to the USA – California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC – carrying out the same kind of investigation as has just finished in the UK. The most damning finding of the UN-US Report on Poverty was similar to the most damning finding of the UN-UK Report on Poverty. Had the Guardian excelled in Journalism they might have highlighted that the UN was not simply finding something isolated.

The Guardian and the BBC might not have concluded that the “Government is in denial” because following the implications of the most damning finding is that POVERTY IS A CHOICE 

Both in 2017, in the USA, and in 2018 in the UK, the UN has concluded that poverty is a choice and that Government has made the decision that the only choice on offer is compliance or poverty. The Mainstream Media is failing to follow any kind of analysis that follows the implications of the finding that poverty is a choice and there is no adequate explanation as to why? The notion that poverty is a choice is one that has been foisted onto everybody by the Government since 2010. Welfare Changes have been touted as Reforms which will enable people to choose to lift themselves out of poverty. That choice takes place within the Choice Architecture that has been created by policy.   

In the UN-US Report, Alston states that: 

“ …I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers…”  

In the UN-UK Report, Alston similarly finds that:  

One of the key features of Universal Credit involves the imposition of draconian sanctions, even for infringements that seem minor. Endless anecdotal evidence was presented to the Special Rapporteur to illustrate the harsh and arbitrary nature of some of the sanctions, as well as the devastating effects that resulted from being completely shut out of the benefits system for weeks or months at a time. As the system grows older, some penalties will soon be measured in years.”  

The Mainstream Media make no connection between the American Experience and the British Experience. As if there was no connection between US Policy and UK Policy. As if all the shuttling back and forth between Republicans and Conservatives has never had any impact. As if the Minor Infraction Notices are, in no way, related to Benefit Sanctions. There is an almost willing blindness: never stray from the press release.  

The UN Rapporteur was never commissioned to analyse Nudge Theory. The outcome of eight years of Libertarian Paternalism has transformed British Society into something that, the UN recognises, punishes the Poverty it also chooses to deliver. The overwhelming Mainstream Media response has been the Punch and Judy caricature and Poverty Porn Prurience instead of analysis.

How did a Government get to the point where Human Rights are optional or contingent upon being an Employee: this is a question central to the current Welfare Policy which is transforming British Society. It also has an answer that the UN Rapporteur gives: POVERTY IS A CHOICE.  

In putting forward an endless series of press releases and promoting the production of daytime television portraying skivers and strivers the Department of Work and Pensions has been nudging the Mainstream Media into only presenting a narrative where strivers can choose to leave poverty and only skivers would want to avoid that choice. The constant nudging – the well written Press Releases that, frequently, substitute for actual Journalism – has worked. The Government has decided to provide the choice of poverty in a range of ways.  

The Government provision of choices of poverty underline that decisions are placed beyond Claimants in a calculated and cruel manner. The Choice Architecture prevents Claimants from making decisions. Decisions would empower Claimants and also permit innovation. Claimants could determine what is the best course of action. Instead the digital by default process has been used to provide a series of choices without any deviation permitted.

A Claimant who fails to fill in any choice – and fill it in correctly, and fill it in digitally – automatically chooses poverty. Similarly, those who fail to know that choices have been proffered are choosing poverty. The complexity of the choice architecture is overwhelming – even for those engaged in administering it. It is a system that has been designed to deliver poverty – and it has.  

The skills to interact with a State that is being made actively oppositional and digital as the UN-UK Report highlights:   

The reality is that digital assistance has been outsourced to public libraries and civil society organizations. Public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate who wish to claim their right to Universal Credit.” 

Which is not too distant from the UN-US Report:

Much more attention needs to be given to the ways in which new technology impacts the human rights of the poorest Americans. This inquiry is of relevance to a much wider group since experience shows that the poor are often a testing ground for practices and policies that may then be applied to others. These are some relevant concerns.”  

The truth is, the US and the UK have parallel tracks in overarching Policy objectives: eliminate the State and have the Poor fend for themselves. The emphasis on digital systems as a means to distance Policy Makers from Policy Delivery and to “cut costs” is evident across the US and UK Reports. Pretrial detention has been an area calling for systematic reform in the US for decades. The UN-US Report observes:   

Automated risk assessment tools, take “data about the accused, feed it into a computerized algorithm, and generate a prediction of the statistical probability the person will commit some future misconduct, particularly a new crime or missed court appearance.”

The system will generally indicate whether the risk for the particular defendant, compared to observed outcomes among a population of individuals who share certain characteristics, is ‘high’, ‘moderate’, or ‘low’. Judges maintain discretion, in theory, to ignore the risk score.” 

Which reflects the “automated” nature of the Work Capability Assessment for the Disabled in the UK, previously reported by the UN as being either at risk or actually in the process of grave human rights abuse. In the UN-UK Report the Automated Risk Assessment tools are commented upon:   

But it is clear that more public knowledge about the development and operation of automated systems is necessary. The segmentation of claimants into low, medium and high risk in the benefit system is already happening in contexts such as ‘Risk-based verification.’ Those flagged as ‘higher risk’ are the subject of more intense scrutiny and investigation, often without even being aware of this fact. The presumption of innocence is turned on its head when everyone applying for a benefit is screened for potential wrongdoing in a system of total surveillance. And in the absence of transparency about the existence and workings of automated systems, the rights to contest an adverse decision, and to seek a meaningful remedy, are illusory.”   

Which underlines that the Government of the day – regardless of political inclination – are delivering Policy Objectives without transparency, clarity or even sufficient information to determine what the Policy Objectives are. When policy objectives only become clear through outcomes, there is a clear suspicion that Democracy has been subverted. Which is the general direction the UN-US and UN-UK Reports indicate. There are serious Human Rights failings but also a serious democratic deficit arising from the idea that POVERTY IS A CHOICE.   

The use of Computer Systems is not neutral or innocent. The Special Rapporteur notes that:   

it is worrying that the Data Protection Act 2018 creates a quite significant loophole to the GDPR for government data use and sharing in the context of the Framework for Data Processing by Government.”  

Which is not simplistically that UK Government Departments have “rights” to trawl through personal data but that it is increasingly criminalised for Claimants – more than eight million people – to object to that trawl or to object to the sharing of data with Commercial Contractors. Those same Contractors being Employers and the inevitable consequence of data sharing being to put Claimants at a distinct power and negotation disadvantage when contracts of Employment are considered. Because the UK Government Departments have zero obligation to ensure Claimants get the best possible job. Simply that Claimants flow off the Register.   

Which is how POVERTY IS A CHOICE is being delivered from Government to the People. Interaction with the Department of Work and Pensions has become the single most corrosive interaction with Government that People can have. The design of benefits has become an exercise in delivering the ideological convictions of the Government regardless of the practicality of those convictions. For the Conservative Government, that conviction is that people should be in poverty unless they are Employed. Which ensures the disabled, parents, students, pensioners, entrepreneurs in start-up and Carers are locked into a combative process in which the only exit is to choose poverty.  

The UK Mainstream Media is not really exploring this dimension of the UN Rapporteur’s commentary. It leads to uncomfortable terrain for any Journalist. Not least, the intimate connection between the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK. The ideological convergence of the Conservatives with the Republicans has delivered a wide range of public policy disasters. The Department of Work and Pensions has been allowed carte blanche to redesign the Welfare State based on the Workfare preferred by the Republicans.

The Nudge Unit has crossed, and recrossed, the Atlantic ensuring that the Conservative’s historic prejudice for “the right to manage” has become inflated. Including all aspects of social existence into contractual relationships between the Government and the People. Dating back to Ronald Reagan’s 1985 “Contract with America” speech where everything was reduced to legislation as contract and society became replaceable with a well ordered business.

The UK Mainstream Media is not really capable of exploring these ideas because, quite simply, to do so is to undermine the interests of their owners. Without any need for coercion, the Government is capable of nudging the Media into endlessly propagating the POVERTY IS A CHOICE agenda.  

Despite the comprehensive nature of the UN Rapporteurs investigations and reporting, there is little about the UN-UK Report that is actually surprising. The connection between the UN-UK and UN-US Reports might well be a surprise to the Media. Realistically, there should be no surprise at all. The Extremists of The Atlantic Bridge, The Heritage Foundation and all the myriad of Far Right Think Tanks since Reagan, have all been promoting the same ideas both sides of the Atlantic. They have all been ensuring that the tools exist for Government to make only once choice possible for the People and that choice is Poverty.  

UN-UK Report  

UN-US Report 

 Picture: Mika Rottenberg, Bowls Balls Souls Holes, Video Installation Rose Art Museum Waltham USA (2104). 

This article was written by Hubert Huzzah.


 

 

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