Call centre welfare: Coalition plans to dehumanise the state

As the legislation for Universal Credit goes through Parliament, Charlotte Pell argues that human beings, not call centre scripts and online forms, should deal with the millions of Britons set to claim the new benefit
Charlotte Pell
8 April 2011

The Coalition hopes to save money by encouraging the majority of Universal Credit claimants to apply online or via a call centre. But trying to deliver high-variety services through ‘cheaper’ channels will only drive costs up - and, the larger argument, fail to respond to claimants as human beings.  

Sally, a human being from Doncaster, was admitted to A&E with abdominal pain. Her hospital stay was indefinite and could last weeks. From her bedside, Sally’s mum rang the DWP to report her ‘change in circumstances’. The call centre operator asked whether Sally would continue to seek work by doing 3 job-related activities a week. Her mum, who couldn’t tell a lie, said no. A box was un-ticked and Sally’s benefits were stopped.

Unfortunately, Sally’s bills didn’t stop. From hospital, she rang the DWP for help. The operator apologised, “I’m sorry but ‘it’ won’t let me pay Job Seekers Allowance until you are actively seeking work”. Sally would have to re-apply when she came out of hospital. In the meantime, she could apply for other benefits and a crisis loan.

Sally, anxious and distressed, discharged herself from hospital early to talk to her landlord about rent, deal with her bills and find out how to apply for a loan and other benefits.  As a result, her condition deteriorated and she became seriously ill.

Some will say that this shouldn’t have happened, that the DWP could have done this or that differently. But this is what does happen, all the time. ‘It’ couldn’t release the money until a box was ticked.

What is this ‘it’? I knew what the operator meant. You know what he meant. The same ‘It’ is everywhere. It runs much of the public sector. It spews out the wrong letters to the wrong people. It gets the amounts we are owed wrong. It does things in 10 working days. It doesn’t do things in 10 working days. It generates letters we don’t understand. It is inflexible. It can only deal with one part of our query at a time. It doesn’t listen or understand. It certainly doesn’t care. It can only go in one order and at a certain speed. It doesn’t recognise anything outside its boxes. It loses documents. It tells us we are third in the queue. It is very sorry. It gives us a unique customer reference number. It tells us our session has timed out. It takes a very long time. It makes us angry. 

But ‘it’ cannot deal with variety. 

It forces people like Sally into crisis situations.

What can deal with variety? What can deal with people with a variety of needs? What can deal with people who express their needs differently? What can adapt to different speeds and take things in a different order? What can react quickly, listen, reassure and explain? What can make decisions and judgements quickly? What can learn? What can connect with us?

The answer isn’t a what. It’s a who. The answer is a human being. Only human beings can deal with the variety of demand that hits a service like DWP. Only a human being can deal with the variety of needs and circumstances involved when people claim benefits or tax credits. But not just any human being - an expert who has the authority and expertise to make a decision.

If you ask a housing benefits manager how many types of claims they process a year, the answer will be as many claims as they get. There are no ‘types’. There is just endless variety. The same is true when it comes to the change in a claimant’s circumstances - even more variety.

Many housing benefits managers have learnt that to absorb this endless variety, benefit claimants should be seen by a benefits expert as soon as they claim. Claimants arrive, get their claims sorted quickly and go away again. They don’t keep coming back with questions and bits of paper. There is no front and back office split. Instead, there is just one benefits office with one purpose – to help people claim the right amount of benefit at the right time. If claimants’ circumstances change, they are more likely to tell the benefits advisor because they know it will be hassle free.  The purpose of these offices is no longer to answer phones, send out letters and fill in forms. Managers have learnt that although unit costs might be higher, letting the customer see the expert is much cheaper overall because there are far fewer repeat calls, visits, errors and complaints.

Simple, isn’t it?

And yet there are rumours the government plans to give ‘it’ more power with proposals to deliver the new single benefit, the ‘Universal Credit’ online. Big IT companies will tell ministers that oh yes, of course it will work. Of course the IT will be flexible and of course it will be easy for claimants to understand. There will be scripts, voice recognition systems, scoring systems and guidance notes.  The IT will be ‘deliverable within the timescale and on budget’.  But as soon as it comes up against real people it will fail. Claimants will ring the call centre because they want to speak to a human being.  The call centres will struggle to cope with ‘unexpected demand’. Costs will rise.

Only people can absorb variety. Only people can listen and respond. Only people can make judgements.

Sally didn’t get the help she needed because of the design of the system. The operative had no flexibility or authority to make a sensible, proportionate decision.

The Coalition has an opportunity to end the reign of the call centre scripts, the forms and the IT systems when they design the new benefit system. They could choose to put the human being, the expert and the most intelligent machine we have, where it matters: right in front of the customer.

Charlotte Pell is a Campaigner and Researcher for Professor John Seddon, Vanguard Consulting.

For more information on the Campaign for the Better Way to Universal Credit read Professor John Seddon’s open letter to Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, the ministers responsible for Welfare Reform.

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