7 October 2010

Paradoxes of bureaucracy & child benefits...

Bureaucracy. The word evokes ponderous slowness, rooms choked with paper clutched in the hands of frustrated applicants. The lifeless bureaucrats peer out of their isolating booths with dulled, unsympathetic eyes, uninterested in the travails of those petitioning for the aid of their agency. They bring "denied" stamps down with crashing finality. Files are marked "Approved" without passion. Everywhere is befuddlement and the gluey operation of brutalising reason. But lo! Enter, stage right, the rambunctious Spirit of Enterprise. He replaces bureaucrat grey with the full colour of human endeavour. With magisterial sweep, he brushes aside all of the petty detail and myopic inspection of papers. He issues commands. He is brisk, curt and offers fulfilment. In a sudden thrill of horror - the scrap of paper bureaucrats scatter - triumph, fin.

That's the theory, anyway, and it seems only to have supporters. Who, these days, would be obnoxious enough to declare themselves a defender of the bureaucratic ethos and its potential contribution to our lives? Couldn't everything be better, simpler, quicker, faster, more just? Amid all this excoriation of bureaucratic decision-making, it is easy to forget that the payment of social benefits and entitlements and welfare in our society relies on bureaucracy. These apparently impersonal structures survey and encompass millions of people. Using simple technologies like the form, they connect us all up, despite the drowning detail of idiosyncratic feeling and concern. I'm not trying to beatify the unlovely figure of the paper-shuffler. There are good rules and bad rules, good and bad rules well applied and poorly applied, processes efficiently despatched or inefficiently despatched. My concern is that often as not, our politics doesn't engage in criticism of particular bureaucracies, but of bureaucracy as such. Politicians speak of needless oversight, check, limitation, interference, cost and delay. They assure us they're against these. They are simplifying souls, promising Alexandrian solutions to Gordian problems.

In some ways, one can see the paradoxical Con-Dem coalition's proposals to child benefits in these terms. As has been widely mooted, under the plan child benefit would no longer be credited to households paying the higher rate of income tax. But wait a minute, many have said - the consequence of that approach is that a couple earning £43,000 each - not reaching the 40% tax band - will still receive child benefit, whole a couple with only one working on £44,001 won't. How absurd!  How unfair! And hardly rewarding housewifery and househusbandry, as was promised. "How is this supporting marriage and the family?", others ask. Practically speaking, I imagine pegging benefit to the higher tax rate appeared to satisfy the watchword - simplicity. No apparent references to Labourite "means-testing", just a plain rule, cut, thrust, next! Unjust or iffy on the margins, probably - but a public policy entrepreneur is by no means an ideologically careful measurer. Another complex problem solved in a single cutlass strike. The Spirit of Enterprise still has it. Er... or not.

I won't speak to the practicalities of the proposed reform, or whether the apparent simplicity will result in meaningful simplification. What I wanted to emphasise is that the charming rhetoric of post-bureaucratic verve in our public structures are often - indeed I'd be tempted to say always - likely to come into brutal competition with other values which are held to be important, including the desire for some sense of fairness, reasonable contribution, support for entitled good faith applicants and none for the conscious rogues and the desperate cheats. Even the Tories are unwilling to say - This is all too complicated. Let's be simpler, even if a few cases seem unjustly treated. We don't care too much and shouldn't care too much about those. The overall simplification is devoutly to be wished and will benefit the country in some inchoate fashion. No, they aren't so brave or cavalier. They beetle their brows, pull compassionate expressions - and  talk about fair contributions - and quite rightly, get hoisted on their own incendiary policy petard.

For me, this emphasises a crucial point which goes a long way to explaining why, after an extended period of anti-bureaucratic rhetoric - these structures have not evaporated. All too often, a critique of bureaucracy amounts to a critique of bureaucratic complexity, of multiple interests at work in any decision, of discretion unevenly applied. Ironically enough, it is often those who are particularly vocal against bureaucracy that simultaneously howl for sterner laws, tighter definitions, for elaborate assessments of entitlement - on everything from immigration, incapacity benefit and so on. These twin impulses result in a paradoxical form of radically anti-welfare rhetoric that assumes something like the following form:

I insist you pore over the lives of welfare applicants to ensure that they're entitled, pry into their homes, demand financial records to ensure they aren't at it and continuous observation to end their payments at the earliest possible moment, the scroungers. What took you so long? Bureaucratic waste and delay! Incompetence! Let's simplify it! But, we still simply must continue to insist that you pay all the same reticent attention to their lives to ensure that the moochers are entitled. What? Can't be done?

This is impatience with the borderline and a Catch 22. Its certainly not a call to dismantle our bureaus, but to empty them of their ambivalent spaces, and speed them up by diminishing the number of variables involved. The brave might concede that this would produce sometimes chimerical and  apparently unfair results and an eccentric welfare provision. The problem - it seems to me - is that  Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians aren't satisfied with the idea of reforming the welfare system in the name of simplicity and diminished complexity. They want us to think that such brightline rules can be fair and just too. This in the context of a public discourse on benefits which has been ruthlessly, indeed obsessively intrusive - demanding closer, ever closer, assessment and review of entitlement. They're trying to convince us, and perhaps themselves, that simplicity can be achieved without costs. And therein lies the problem.


  1. This Government also set up an Office of Tax Simplicity which is due to deliver a preliminary report shortly. I am willing to bet that the same thing will happen, and there will be an uproar in the press when the implications are considered. Simplicity is what everyone wants until they realise that complexity is often there for a good reason and simplicity can also mean unfairness.

  2. Exactly, Iain.

    The problem might be negotiated by saying - the values that call for complexity are not our values and thus can be dispensed with without impacting on our particular conception of fairness or justice or what have you. The double bind, to my eye, is that the Tories and the Liberals seem caught in the paradoxical position I outlined above, with a thoroughly cognitively dissonant combination of views.

    Such awkwardness would always leave them particularly susceptible to the hue and cry.