The desperate situation faced by individuals and families afflicted by over-zealous enforcement of immigration rules has rightly led to a public outcry. But the plight of some of the Windrush generation (amongst others) is, unfortunately, a too frequent occurrence of unnecessary harm in public policy. We see harmful impact on individuals wherever the politics of ‘taking action’ coincides with the administration of ‘delivery’.
Beyond the human stories of distress (the most important part of the current concern) one statistic sticks in mind as it has echoes elsewhere. The Law Society has found that almost 50 percent of immigration and asylum appeals are overturned. Earlier this year, the Work and Pensions Committee found that more than 60 percent of appeals against decisions on disability payments are overturned. Bear in mind many immigration and welfare cases will never find their way through the expensive and time-consuming process of appeal. Whenever the system is tested, it is found wanting.
There is a critical dynamic at play. In parts of the Government machine – the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions are often implicated – there has been a shift from setting incentives to driving disincentives to disobey the rules. Enforcement begets enforcement and can even become an ethos that ‘pain works’. So economic incentives to do the right thing are blended with sociological punishment to achieve an outcome.
These outcomes are then expressed as a simple, communicable number. It can be net migration, the employment rate, the number on disability support, the crime rate, waiting times in accident and emergency or the number of schools that are good or outstanding. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these goals in principle. And this makes the approach exceedingly hard to disagree with. If you question the punitive nature of welfare enforcement, for example, the retort comes back: I believe in work and this system ensures that work pays. Everything becomes narrowed whatever the wider consequences to individuals, families and communities.
A flawed system
Systems, like the people who comprise them, have limited attention spans. Once a goal is set, particularly one with a number attached, that is what the system will work to deliver. As someone sat within the system ‘delivering’ that is your incentive – and your performance will be viewed harshly if you don’t respond to and implement the ethos, aim and outcomes set for the system. Your attention horizon narrows and the erring leans towards the punitive. And this is why so many unjust or perverse outcomes can be observed – as the tribunal case history shows. The differential between appeals overturned within the bureaucracy’s process and the much higher number overturned within independent tribunals is testament to the dynamic at play.
Eventually, the system is, in effect, dehumanised. Max Weber’s iron cage of bureaucracy has descended. And individuals in the system become hierarchically aligned with little discretion and too little room for humanity. Poor models of contracting out can be part of the process by which the bureaucracy assumes greater control (and offloads responsibility to corporations). And the impact of this is that the state assumes greater powers of coercion and control. Paradoxically, far from this providing additional security and rationality for individuals, it shifts the risk to them and makes their situation more arbitrary and less secure. The state acquires power and increases risk simultaneously.
Beyond welfare and immigration, in recent times the RSA has looked at two other public systems that display some of these characteristics. The schooling system has become increasingly prone to ‘gaming’ as Julian Astle analysed in the Ideal School Exhibition. We have seen over a couple of decades the narrowing of goals, increasing hierarchy within the system, risk transferred with the predicable unintended consequence of education becoming too narrowly interpreted around exam outcomes. And Rachel O’Brien and Jack Robson showed in our Future prison work how a system focused on meeting the dominant ‘tough on crime’ and prison service efficiency agenda had failed to properly develop a sophisticated approach to rehabilitation. And this, ironically, means reoffending rates remain extremely high.
A converse example –the exception that proves the rule - is to be found in the arena of housing. There the appeal of Government to the public is vexed. The public is so divided in terms of what it wants from housing building – other than wanting more houses to be built as long as they are built in a different area – that Government has found it difficult to narrow goals and align bureaucracy in the way it has been able to do in other policy areas. At it happens, this may not be a totally problematic thing - at least some of the damage caused by ‘delivery’ strategies may have been avoided (there are times in our history such as the 1960s when delivery has rolled forward and damage has been done).
How can the negative dynamics of ‘delivery’ be avoided?
After all, it goes without saying that proper migration rules, a well-administered welfare state, exam success, house-building, and an effective criminal justice are all to greater or lesser extent desirable. The first thing is to balance simplistic metrics with counter-veiling caveats. So for immigration officials, their duty should be to apply the law but offset that against the risk of causing unnecessary harm. Numerical targets should be handled with extreme care, especially when they become performance measures. And where the system fails it should be clear that it should err on the side of compassion, justice, well-being, understanding, and voice. Politicians and the media should get used to insisting on the right outcome for the person rather than a numeric goal.
Finally, at the core of the challenge here is the interaction between politics and national bureaucracy. Whitehall and politicians try to do too much and consequently end up pulling the biggest levers they possibly can. Compassionate systems are ultimately capable of responding to complex situations with humanity. These outcomes happen at the interface between people. And that is where power could be devolved – to people who have the ability to respond to complex needs with the tools and agency to do so.
Ultimately, the best systems need an array of goals and a balanced ethos if situations such as the Windrush scandal are to be avoided. And, most importantly, deep harm to people and families can and should be avoided.