Is the DWP capable of moulding itself to a radical new agenda?

Government reports rarely become bestsellers. But large queues formed on the night before the publication of William Beveridge’s 300-page survey of social insurance. His report shaped the post-war consensus and laid the foundations for our modern welfare system. It invoked a simple premise: it was better to share risk across society.

The Beveridge report hastened a radical consensus around welfare provision for an age of male breadwinners, full employment and economic growth. Its designers could not foresee present-day challenges. Ageing populations, the rise in short-term employment contracts and in-work poverty have transfigured welfare needs. But modern governments have failed to deliver a radical agenda to parallel Beveridge’s vision.

The Conservative government and its predecessors promised transformation, yet their changes have amounted to little more than palliative tweaks. Universal credit and the replacement of incapacity benefit with ESA caused more harm than good. Poverty levels remain unacceptably high. The disability employment gap has not decreased. And a punitive regime of benefit conditionality has regularly left many people destitute.  

In a provocation paper that marked the start of Demos’ research examining the Department of Work and Pensions, Tom Pollard, formerly of the mental health charity Mind and fresh from an 18 months secondment to the DWP, depicts 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.

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 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 describes.

A question hangs over Pollard’s paper: Is the DWP capable of moulding itself to a radical new agenda? To find an answer and identify potential solutions, Demos recently hosted a roundtable discussion with industry experts and senior parliamentarians.

Participants described the DWP’s lack of compassion, which is exacerbated by the department’s focus on weeding out instances of fraud and error. Unlike many organisations that deal with vulnerable customers, the DWP has no special provisions for claimants with accessibility needs, they added.

Moreover, a culture of suspicion means the department often fails to serve the public. One expert noted that while the DWP has a child maintenance exemption for people suffering domestic abuse, staff “don’t tell claimants this up front”, and are guided instead by an institutional culture that pushes people outside of the system, rather than supporting claimants within it.

Where Universal Credit was supposed to update welfare for the 21st century, one expert said the policy was “exactly the same as the old days”, and only provided “small switches”. Instead of tweaks or fixes, they advocated for a broader change – making people “believe” in the welfare system again.

Another participant built on this notion of transformation. Where the past 15 years have seen endless media stories indicting benefits “scroungers”, levels of unemployment are now so low that a different narrative is needed. Instead of welfare fraud, austerity and poverty will define the DWP’s future path. “We need new rhetoric around helping people, rather than disciplining them”, they said.

Contrary to the provocation paper, some argued that abolishing the DWP would be an unnecessary move. One expert argued that the DWP must better distinguish between conditionality and sanctions. Pollard responded that while this distinction was valid, conditionality itself should be called into question. “Conditionality is about motivation”, he said, yet for many people claiming welfare, the problem is not a question of motivation, but rather one of disability or illness that impedes securing work.

Drawing on ethnographic insight from 18 months spent working within the DWP, Pollard casts light upon the institutional dynamics, failures, and possibilities for renewal within this reviled department. Building on Pollard’s insights and the suggestions advanced during the roundtable, Demos will be publishing original research in 2019 that sets out how we might do welfare provision differently, and create a department fit for the challenges of the 21st century.