I was reading this Guardian article (Unconnected And Out of Work: the vicious circle of having no internet) last Saturday morning on my Kindle Fire in bed. Not on an iPad (I decided not to get a new iPad when my last one died because I wanted to be free of lock-in and hey the Kindle Fire was so cheap. Right?) Me mentioning those choices will become clear in a while but for now suffice it to say I was really outraged by the Guardian piece. Not for any other reason than I should have known better. I've worked at local, regional and central government level but it's been some time since I've had to confront my own total lack of awareness. To be honest I felt ashamed.
One of the essays I wrote for my MPA in Warwick in 2010 for my public policy module was called ASBO's - The Criminalization of Social Policy? It predated the debate on policy vs action/iteration set out here by Mike Bracken in his Institute for Government talk The Strategy is Delivery or indeed Tom Loosemore's Code for America tour de force Digital Government: Not Complicated Just Hard but hey I was working in local government when I wrote it - so I was coming from a slightly different place.
It articulated the 9 principles of professional policy making for the twenty first century (1999) which I agreed with. Policymaking should be:
For the purpose of the essay I defined successful policy as one which delivered the intended outcomes for those for whom the policy was evolved in the first place (without unintended negative consequences to others). My essay studied policy development under New Labour in relation to crime and anti-social behaviour focusing on ASBO's and asking whether they represented the criminalization of social policy epitomizing authoritarian rather than communitarian government? I contrasted this with the work of philosopher Jonathan Wolff whose model of disadvantage was developed from the original "capability approach" developed by Nussbaum and Sen . And it was all in the context of believing that those who had gone into government had done so to to good not evil (my rationalization of a life in public policy work). I won't bore you with the details of my research but here's is what I found in relation to ASBO's.
Jack Straw made a clear statement to Parliament on the 16th March 1999, that the Crime and Disorder Act introducing ASBO's was compliant with the European Court of Human Rights convention but in fact, certain conditions and prohibitions which were features of the ASBO were actually in breach of children's rights under Articles 8, 10 and 11 of the ECHR. These included preventative prohibitions such as access to public space and assembling on a housing estate since preventative prohibitions “not only ban repetition of the anti social behaviour, they also ban conduct which is necessary prior to it....to the extent that such orders extend beyond prohibiting a child’s anti-social behaviour, it is arguable that they violate the ECHR” (MacDonald & Telford:2007)
Far from being forward looking, outward looking, inclusive, joined up, innovative and creative, ASBO’s were “forms of restraint from without: they do not co-opt the individual’s free will in order to work, but utilize old fashioned state sovereignty to change behaviour through force” (Davies:2006).
Writing in their book Disadvantage Wolff and de-Shalitt 2007 have suggested that the lack of some capabilities can be classed as "corrosive disadvantages" while the presence of others lead to "fertile functionings". They suggest policymakers should decluster disadvantage and focus instead on fertile functionings.
A practical example is the case of an 18 year old in Manchester when his ASBO “prohibited him from congregating with three or more other youths. He was subsequently arrested when he entered a successful local youth club with a good reputation on the grounds that there were more than three youths in the premises, even though the session scheduled for that evening was how to deal with anti social behaviour” (MacDonald & Telford:2007).
Under the model proposed by Wolff and de-Shalitt the opportunity to avail of the educational opportunity offered by the youth club would be seen as a fertile functioning while the enforcement of the ASBO would be seen as a corrosive disadvantage.
Fast forward from 1999 to 2016 and the subject of the Guardian article pointing to the fact that jobseekers must now spend up to 35 hours a week on online applications, or risk losing their benefits. When you can’t afford a computer, this is no mean feat. Unintended policy consequences are one thing and perhaps forgivable prior to the age of data - but with the introduction of universal job match and the punitive sanctions regime - didn't anyone consider using data to model how such actions might actually impact on the ground? How difficult would it have been to:
This is not rocket science but the unintended consequences are shocking. One of those featured in the Guardian piece travels to Newcastle's city centre library from his flat in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea a good 30 minutes away, with one bus every half hour and a return fare costing £3.90, The journey three times a week costs almost £12.00 from his jobseekers allowance, leaving him with about £6 per day to pay for food, bills and other essentials. He recently missed his target for online applications because he simply did not have the money for the bus fare. Result? “They sanctioned me. Four weeks with no money – they took my JSA my housing benefit and council tax benefit. I had nothing.”
This is corrosive disadvantage at its worst. Things on the ground are very different from the centre where policy is written to meet the needs of political masters who have never lived these lives and could not imagine a world where broadband access and computer ownership is not a given. I am passionate about the delivery of good public services online and especially the work of Government Digital Services but policy needs to be driven by real data and evidence and a thorough understanding of the real impact on peoples lives.
Let's focus on the innovative and creative part of that policy definition I described above and I'll use an example from local government to explain. Many years ago when working in local government I had a good friend who was a brilliant and caring social worker. She'd been working with a particular family whose father spent a lot of time in the pub. Not to drink but because he couldn't afford to pay for Sky Sports at home. She found a way to bend the rules and paid for a subscription to Sky Sports which kept him at home with his family with a great improvement in the family environment having him at home instead of in the pub. These are the small but important nuances of behaviour that the instrumental state fails to understand time and time again. It doesn't matter what party is in power Labour with its ASBO mistakes or Conservatives with their Universal Jobmatch.
I am privileged that I can make trivial decisions about an iPad or Kindle Fire. That I have broadband access and ubiquitous WIFI. That I don't have the government monitoring my internet access to demonstrate my productivity or otherwise. I disagree with only one part of the Guardian article when it describes Universal Jobmatch as a "smart response to the digital age. It can monitor online activity to make sure people are actively hunting for work". That kind of stick approach to changing behaviour simply will not work - not unless you incentivize people with the right tools and opportunities.
I have great respect for Martha Lane Fox and I agreed with much of what she said in her recent Dimbleby lecture but I don't necessarily agree that the first action is to establish an Institute. I think the first thing we need to do is to get our politicians to pledge to give universal, fast, free broadband access now to the most disadvantaged in our communities. Let technology be a fertile functioning.
Get the best technology into the hands of those who need it most and the next government whoever that will be may just find that people access more than job applications. And if you doubt for a moment the huge empowering influence that technology can have in lifting people out of poverty then you would do well to watch this TED talk by Sugata Mitra on the power of child driven education. Things are never what they look like from Whitehall. That's why we need granular, local, data informed by real human beings on the ground. The technology is there those with responsibility for the most vulnerable in society just need to start using it to make better informed decisions.