Friday, 17 May 2013

Targets and Expectations

The Department of Work and Pensions has conducted an internal inquiry into the use of targets for job-seeker sanctions and concluded that there is "no evidence of a secret national regime of targets". The report is the sort of whitewash you would expect from self-inspection. It finds (correctly) that the DWP did not set a Vegas trip target for job centre advisers, with TV displays of a leaderboard against a backdrop of the Bellagio hotel. Though "targets" were not set, it was standard practice to instruct advisers on "what might be expected in their local labour market and for their size of caseload as an aid to judging whether the law is being properly applied". This fine distinction between a target and an expectation is sophistry. As a football fan, my target may be to win the league, but my expectation is to finish in the top four. They are not the same thing. As the DWP do not have formal targets for "exceeding expectations", i.e. the goal is not (yet) to sanction every claimant, then the target is necessarily synonymous with the expectation.

This shows how management can create an environment that promotes and reinforces a particular behaviour while officially denying either intent or responsibility (you can insert your own topical examples here, from banks to online retailers). Perhaps the best evidence of the reality of targets is the DWP's own "scorecard" of referrals and sanctions by office, which interprets a month-on-month increase (i.e. more job-seekers in trouble) as a positive, illustrating it with a green 'up' arrow. A fall in sanctions, which you might think would be welcome, indicating that job-seekers were toeing the line and busily looking for work, is marked with a red 'down' arrow. Anyone would get the message: job centres must find more shirkers.

The tougher regime for job-seekers is part of a wider programme of "structural reform" being advanced under cover of austerity that aims to re-engineer both state institutions and public expectations. It is becoming more widely appreciated that government policy since 2010 (and earlier in some countries - e.g. Ireland) has been focused on the preservation of privilege (both corporate and individual) and the reinforcement of hegemonic control (there is no alternative, public debt is bad etc). While structural reform encompasses real differences of opinion among capitalists, e.g. the division between Big Capital and Money Capital over banking and the frictions between Big Capital and Small Capital over the EU, the broad thrust is unmistakeably neoliberal: the dominance of supra-state agencies, the furtherance of free trade (the actual purpose of Cameron's US visit this week), and the increasing diversion of income from labour to capital.

The last of these is the most profound. The evolution of the neoliberal supra-state framework (IMF, World Bank, WTO, EU etc) continues, however the establishment phase, between 1945 and 1992, is now over. The blows to this framework in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis have not been fatal, but they do herald an era of more gradual and (for now) grudging development. The EU is more likely to go sideways than forwards over the next decade. While the great technological leaps of the last 50 years in logistics and communications have made free trade, in the form of globalisation, the dominant socio-economic story of the period, the current phase is likely to be shaped more by the rise of the robots. Though this has come to the fore in recent years, the harbingers were there in 1979.

Since that pivotal year, we have been in transition from full employment (which was a historic anomaly limited to les trente glorieuses) towards a capital-biased economy with persistent high un- and under-employment. Globalisation and anti-union laws were the initial mechanisms for disempowering labour, but robots (and I'm using that word as shorthand for automation more generally) will be the dominant lever in the coming phase. If the expectations about the speed at which technology will displace labour (without providing new jobs at a sufficient replacement rate) are correct - i.e. that this is accelerating - then the last 35 years can be seen as the ideological preparation of the political terrain for a future in which many people are simply surplus to requirements - i.e. worthless in themselves (as labour) and not owning sufficient assets to generate significant consumption. The coming conflict will not be between people and robots, it will be between those who own robots and those who don't.

The DWP's exculpatory report was telling in its revelation of the use of personal improvement plans (PIPs) as a way of managing the behaviour of job centre staff and setting expectations. They "should be very clear about the consequences of an individual not fulfilling the personal responsibilities as a civil servant to administer the system in full". The point here is not that PIPs are the mechanism by which informal targets are set and enforced, but that the job centre worker is considered to be as suspect as a JSA claimant and thus equally deserving of coercion. This is in line with the ideological drift of the last 35 years. Back in the 70s, in keeping with the importance of "differentials" in pay-bargaining, recipients of unemployment benefit (who had paid NICs to deserve a higher rate) would often look down (admittedly not from a great height) on those on supplementary benefit. Today, all of the unemployed, and increasingly the disabled, are assumed to be skivers by default, while we are encouraged to see workers on low wages as scroungers if they get housing benefits above a certain level or are guilty of "over-breeding". Everyone who does not own capital is suspect.

Job centre staff are experiencing a work management regime that has become common among middle-tier clerical roles. Their work is increasingly proceduralised and rule-bound, and the latitude for personal judgement and interpretation is minimised. The goal is to reduce the role to one that can be fully automated. When robots do the job, the targets will be internalised within the software. At this point there will be no discernible difference between targets and expectations, but also no need to claim otherwise.

No comments:

Post a Comment