Universal Chaos

September 22, 2012

I would heartily recommend everyone to read the uncorrected House of Commons Oral Evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on Universal Credit on Monday 17 September 2012 by Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, if only to read how politicians can avoid giving a straight answer to some very straight questions (and get away with it)! Glenda Jackson can also be read playing a splendid role questionning the two aforementioned Tory apologists, along with Dame Anne Begg (who according to this week’s New Statesman had to put up with Iain Duncan Smith leaning obliviously on the back of her wheelchair in the Commons bar recently).

For local authorities there is no good news as the answers received by Ms Jackson reveal and they now appear to be ‘charitable organisations’:

“Q216 Glenda Jackson: Will the funding be there to assist local authorities?

Lord Freud: Clearly, it is premature to say exactly what kind of funding is required.

Q217 Glenda Jackson: We know the cuts they are having to carry.

Lord Freud: We have got funds to introduce Universal Credit.  We are not concerned about who undertakes particular endeavours, and we can pay that on a neutral basis, so, in the sense that, yes, we do have funding for it.

Q218 Chair: My understanding was that a large chunk of the £2 billion-or £3 billion; there seemed to be some argument in the debate last Tuesday-that was set aside to help introduce Universal Credit would go on transitional protection for those whose income would lose out, rather than in the mechanics of it.

Mr Duncan Smith: The mechanics are part of all of that.  The whole point that we have been talking about is getting people online.  All those processes are part of what we have to do.  We are discussing with local government about how that lies and where that sits.  There are other charitable organisations we are talking to.”

And then it gets worse –

“Lord Freud: No. Let me just go through that. What we are transferring to local authorities is a whole range of responsibilities, where they can make better judgments on their local requirements: elements of the Social Fund; the decisions on DHPs, which are very substantial-next year, when you add them all up, DHPs are £165 million; and decisions on direct payments.

Q227 Chair: That just confuses the landscape. The whole point of Universal Credit, and the reason that you get people like me saying that in principle this was a good idea was it was meant to be that single working-age benefit for those who were on means-tested benefit.

Lord Freud: And it is.

Chair: But it is not.

Lord Freud: It is.

Q228 Chair: It was going to be, but then council tax went off to the local authority and the Social Fund went off-”

And shortly after that they give up on that strand…but so it goes on, and on. I’m not sure I’m much clearer about what’s happening with UC, so I look forward to the edited (‘corrected’) highlights in due course from the Committee and congratulate the members of it again on some thorough questioning.


Social voting

July 21, 2012

Two different stories bring together how Facebook is becoming used more in public life. The first is from the MIT Technology Review dated 12 July 2012 by David Zax and is entitled “Facebook, CNN, and the Rise of Social Voting“, the second appears on The Register of 18 July 2012 and is written by Neil McAllister and headed “Washington State to allow voter registration via Facebook“. The first piece with its subtitle of “Can technology disrupt democracy” is possibly the scariest, although it mainly concerns the development of a Facebook app by CNN that permits endorsement of candidates and issues, along with a commitment to vote, by Facebook users. The piece also names a few related applications: ElectNext, Votizen and PopVox. What is perhaps concerning in the first case is that due to the ‘now’ factor involved in social media voting might be reflecting journalistic leads from CNN.

The second piece is a much simpler use of Facebook with Washington State (not DC!) harvesting names and dates-of-birth from Facebook into their voter registration system. This will obviously require the originating user to be real and the data to be accurate. I recall attempts in the UK to register Mickey Mouse and the pet hamster on more than one occasion!

In general it does indicate a general look to social media to increase democratic input. However, if someone can’t fill out a registration form occasionally and turn up at a polling station every so often, representative democracy is dead and we need to be looking at a new way of delivering it – as Marshall Ganz has said “the chance for people to become actors and not just spectators in the drama of life”. [New Statesman, 16 July 2012, p.54].


April 13, 2012

Rafael Behr presents a political essay on the topic ‘The real opposition’ in the New Statesman of 26 March 2012. Picking up on the intransigence of whether social media and the Internet are affecting mainstream politics, the conclusion remains still unsure. Despite the excellent work done by the likes of 38 Degrees and others, there remain a majority of those who probably need to influence politicians without access to or interest in the Internet and information technology. Whilst this doesn’t demean the value of ‘clicktivism’, it does reduce its status as a democratic tool, since it remains one for the younger, educated middle classes.

I can sympathise with the concerns of MP’s whose  inboxes fill up with robotically generated email from constituents who have an interest in the latest mass-mobilised issue, since quantity doesn’t necessarily recommend a mandate for action, but being able to raise enough supporting voices must have some value, although as Behr acknowledges it can be seen as mob rule – but that is perhaps what is needed?

Blogging for academia; writing for citizens

December 9, 2010

One of my favourite New Statesman journalists is Alice Miles. In the Political Studies Guide 2011 supplement to the edition of 29 November 2010, she comes closer still to my heart. In a piece entitled “Talk human, please”, she argues that academic writing fails to engage with the real world, which she found as an experienced journalist trying to satisfy her academic tutors on a masters course in social policy.

She is of course correct, ignoring the need for rigour and accuracy, there is frequently a need for pedantry and circulating the houses so many times it would make any normal reader dizzy! A key element I believe, as a blogging academic practitioner, is around the need for a greater acceptance of new media within academic circles, for as she states “it is no good sitting around in ivory towers (OK, they’re more usually made of concrete breeze blocks) condemning journalism for being ill-informed pap and then refusing to take part in it”.

Blogging is one way of learning to write for a wider audience.

In the same way that academic writing is frequently too heavy for the average citizen (and having been brainwashed into writing for an academic audience, I am as guilty as any), there is another set of authors that fail to do it for the average citizen and that is those brought up in the ways of council solicitors and bureaucracy. It has taken time to teach the average council officer to write for the web but there remain islands where council notices in the legally prescribed format are transferred to the Internet without any translation! This, in the same way that practitioners will refuse to read stilted academic literature, will restrain citizens from interacting with councils via the Internet.

Out of focus

July 22, 2010

As a method of determining policy or measuring anything I’ve always been nervous about the use of focus groups. My nervousness was rationalised when I read the review in New Statesman by former Labour MP and government minister Chris Mullin of a new book by Deborah Mattinson entitled “Talking to a Brick Wall: How New Labour Stopped Listening to the Voter and Why We Need a New Politics”.

Whilst neither the author of the book nor author of the review appear critical of New Labour alone for their reliance upon feedback from focus groups, I do wonder whether we can rely upon the simple mechanism of collating feedback, until the confidence of the citizens in public service is regained?

Having suffered the scandals of MP’s expenses, highly paid ‘public servants’ and others in the press continually, are we ready to accept public duty as a two-way operation? An operation where feedback means something and will be used to improve services by the recipients, because they’re not in it for their own gain.

Are focus groups just a pretence of consultation?