Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I was just looking at entitledto again and it has a whole bunch more stuff in it than I originally saw. What is particularly noticeable is that when you are within the site everything works, it's clean, it's fast, but as soon as you follow an outside link to some government or council site the whole thing grinds to a halt – both technically and informationally. I guess we could assume two things from this. 1) The government is quite bad at explaining and administering it’s own benefits system, and 2) The government is pretty crap at doing technology things.

Which leads me on to thinking about why some things work and others don't. Entitledto seem to be good at getting their message across because a) they actually understand the system and b) they have no hidden agenda – they are free to tell it like it is. Let's face it there's always a conflict within government about benefits. While politically there are pressures to trumpet their benefits largesse (unless you’re a Tory) there are also fiscal pressures to reduce benefit claims. It really isn’t a hard step to imagine a national government campaign encouraging people to apply for benefits they are entitled to while at the same time dole office managers are being told they have too many scroungers so they need to weed out the chaff.

It’s fair to say that the days of just turning up and expecting some cash from the government are well and truly over, but does the benefits system really need to be so bizarrely complex. One can somehow believe that it’s made that way deliberately. The underlying principles are not in and of themselves necessarily that complex. After all, entitledto’s benefit calculator manages to work stuff out from just a few simple questions, but it is inconceivable that any government department would ever adopt such a simple approach to judging, calculating and adjusting benefit.

I guess to some extent that is because the government is partly concerned with detecting fraudulent claimants hence all the additional hoops to jump through, but surely there must come a point whereby additional bureaucracy and security is actually more expensive than less. Ie the cash saved by detecting fraudulent claimants is less than the cost of the system it took to detect them. Of course there are other factors such as ‘pour encourager les autres’ but this must surely have been looked at in some detail. I would hope that there are rubrics and methodologies within place in government to be able to scientifically judge when it is a good idea to stop with the questions and just pony up. What am I talking about? This kind of stuff is hard to do within sane and relatively prosperous organizations. Chances of it happening in government? Errrmmm . . .

Which kinda leads onto the question of how are benefits decided in the first place. If we assume that the extent to which claimants are investigated is based more upon political whim and available resource than any scientific approach to maximising payment while minimising fraud, how on earth are the rules for those entitlements and the level of entitlement arrived at in the first place.

Again you have conflicting pressures from within government. On one level (ie that of getting elected) you want to champion ‘the people’ and promise them all kinds of benefit increases, and increased means of access, while on another level (that of having been elected) you want to keep as much money as possible to yourself. Part of this has to be with shifting perspective – when you are in opposition it’s ‘The governments money which they have cruelly extorted from The People and they should give back.’ When you’re in power its suddenly ‘My money that those feckless bastards the great unwashed wish to steal from me to fritter away on scratch cards and Embassy No1.’ (© ‘What Tony Really Thinks TM ’). So between the demands of the electorate, departmental spending demands and The Treasury’s not so secret desire to outlaw all spending that cannot be proved to be benefiting growth how on earth do you work out what payment a long term doley in Port Sunshine should get towards his new washing machine?

So how is this worked out? Are the laundering and tumble drying requirements of our Welsh denizens carefully tabulated and cross referenced against average white goods lifespan and second hand cost and re-sale value? Or is this sort of thing more influenced by some toad getting on his hind legs in The House and asking the government if it was aware that last year HM Government spent £62 M on washing machines for feckless wasters? You decide.

And what about NI payments? I’m really fairly in the dark on this one but here’s the question. For the last 50 years (12 years in my case) the Great British Public has been paying 9.8% of everything it earns into this bottomless pit from which supposedly come government pensions, sickness cover, unemployment benefit etc etc. And yet for the last 15 years, reading between the lines, ministers have been telling us that this pit is, in fact, completely empty. Where did the money go? Show me the money!

So I guess my supposition is this:- Politicians like to dangle the carrot of benefit in front of us during election time. However as they well know the money to pay for all this simply doesn’t exist, so in an attempt to stop them having to reach into their own (ie current taxes) pocket to pay for what they’ve promised they make the benefit system as complex, inflexible and non user friendly as possible. There can really be no other explanation for why people such as entitledto are able to simply calculate your benefits when such answers would be completely impossible to extract from any government department or agency.

Does any of this make sense?

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