Scottish Parliament Marco Varisco CC License via Flickr

Devolving welfare: Creating a velvet glove or dismantling the iron fist?

Published: 29 August 2019

In her contribution to our series on devolution at twenty, Dr Hayley Bennett highlights the importance of examining both policy ideas and implementation approaches for devolved social security and welfare services in Scotland.

Over the past 15 years, Westminster’s programme of welfare reform has arguably transformed the British welfare state from a social safety-net to an ‘iron fist’ for the most vulnerable in society. Whilst there was a period where such policy changes were cloaked in a ‘velvet glove’ of human-facing services and support programmes (up to 2010), the rise of digital-by-default and cuts to public services has meant that for many in society there is little to soften the impact of rapid welfare retrenchment and increased conditionality.

Unsurprisingly, debates around welfare reform featured heavily during the Scottish independence campaign in 2014 and underpinned some of the subsequent Smith Commission recommendations in 2016 including identifying 11 benefits for further devolution to the Scottish Parliament[i]. Since then, the Scottish Government and SNP ministers have publically stated that they are committed to “doing things differently”, favouring a social investment discourse as their preferred approach to address inequality and social injustice.

In this context, it is therefore careless to view the devolution of social security benefits as a simple transfer of policy-making powers or the legal ability to alter individual programmes. We should instead consider the expectations, experiences, and relationship between citizens and the state, paying attention to the causes and experience of poverty, approaches to minimum income, and the design of support services. As such, it is equally important to examine both public policy choices and implementation approaches when seeking to understand welfare state devolution in Scotland.  

This perspective raises a wide range of questions about current and future devolution of welfare services in Scotland. Are civil servants approaching these policy areas and services differently and if so, how? Are they challenging the dominant logics that underpin Westminster led welfare services? Are key decision-makers (political and professional) engaging with citizens, civil society, and social researchers during policy-making and service design processes? Such questions matter because devolving the welfare state has to be more than speeches in parliament and policy language. Service design and operational choices (e.g. the use of targets and performance indicators, or digital interfaces) construct the relationship between citizens and the state and require as much critical attention as headline policy statements.

There is not the space here to go into detail but some of these questions are easy to explore. For example, the creation and inclusion of the “Scottish Social Security: Our Charter” in Social Security Scotland Act 2018. The charter (produced via the involvement of many civil society organisations, campaigners, civil servants, and academic researchers) sets out in legislation key principles that shape both policy design and the practice of street-level employees. These principles include a commitment to social justice, language of dignity and respect, and frames social security as a human right. A further development is the creation of ‘Experience Panels’ for the Scottish Government to directly hear from people who use and need services. And there are notable new social security payments such as the Scottish Child Payment (£10 per week) in response to a sustained and successful campaign by civil society organisations. Such activities attract the most media coverage and political attention, in part because of the stark contrast with the Department for Work and Pensions’ policies and practices over recent years (which have generally focussed on benefit reductions and been limited by the zeitgeist of austerity).

However, there is, arguably, a danger that some delivery choices in the new Scottish system conflict with stated policy aims and social policy research. Implementation choices garner less critical attention but are equally important. For example, the initial devolution of the major activation programme (The Work Programme) led to the Scottish Government’s creation of Fair Start Scotland (2018). Whilst there were tweaks to policy design features in line with political statements, (such as the removal of The Work Programme’s mandatory participation and sanctioning practices), the Scottish Government continued to use an implementation approach based on competitive contracting and payments-by-results. As a result, this reproduced the major features (and criticisms) of The Work Programme including the use of private sector providers and the limitations of market-based services. In this instance implementation teams adopt or continue to use approaches more suited to different policy intentions. For example competitive contracting and payment-by-results are management practices closely aligned to work-first employment programmes rather than a social investment agenda.

Similarly, ‘Social Security Scotland’ the new agency for devolved benefits, has adopted the aforementioned charter to put “dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of everything”. However, despite much innovative practice, service designers continue to uncritically use the commercial language of previous iterations of public service reform, including terms such as ‘customers and clients’ to describe the people who will use their services. Such terms reflect previous stages of welfare commodification, which creates distinctive roles for individuals and workers. Furthermore, even in the most marketised of social security and welfare provision (such as employment support programmes) individuals are not actually customers; they have no power to exercise choice or draw on consumer rights.

Although it is still early days, there is a different discussion in Scotland around the role of the welfare state than in the post-2010 Westminster led welfare reform programme, which attracts much attention and praise. However, the mismatch between some policy statements and implementation choices raises questions over whether this is leading to a distinct Scottish welfare system, one that challenges the iron first in both rhetoric and practice. Critical, informed, and reflexive approaches to organisational design and street-level delivery need to accompany the public commitment to social justice. If the Scottish Government continues to engage with citizens, civil society, and academic partners there is much to suggest this may happen in the future.  

[i] Excludes the main working-age benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit which remain reserved matters (although the Scottish Parliament has some power to ‘tweak’ aspects of Universal Credit design).  

Photo Credit: Marco Varisco, Scottish Parliament

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