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Thursday, 21 June 2012

WCA "Mystery Shopping" - another myth exposed

As many will know, DWP has its own dictionary where words and expressions that have a clear and well understood meaning in common parlance have a rather different application by DWP.  We have one here.
The key features of true ‘Mystery Shopping’ are that it is undertaken by an independent organisation and that it focuses on the key interface between the customer & provider.   This version of Mystery Shopping has neither. 
·         It is completed by Atos for Atos on Atos.
·         It does not include the WCA itself.
When you look at its content, it no more than a site/admin audit, which has its place in the overall scheme of things, but referring to it as Mystery Shopping is highly misleading and suggests it is something it most certainly is not.
Furthermore results are not collated centrally to provide an overall picture of the service being provided.  It is clear that DWP has no interest in even these very limited service standards and is happy to abdicate the responsibility totally to Atos and let them get on with it.
This is a highly unusual approach to effective outsourced contract management and ensuring that high standards are provided.

Added 25/06 following ANewWay’s comment.
Sadly, the attitude is fairly widespread.  DWP has trouble distinguishing between delegation and abdication.
From my own experience, both Atos and DWP complaints staff are not able (or willing) to follow a logical step by step argument and regularly confuse cause and effect.  They are particularly poor at identifying process failure.  A regular problem for them of course is that they are fighting on extremely dodgy ground which means they frequently manoeuvre themselves into an inescapable corner and have to fall back on the two common cop-outs: 
a)                  it is a matter of policy [i.e. the Government’s responsibility not ours]’ and/or
b)                  I/we have nothing further to add [which is like invoking the 5th Amendment].
As you may have found, the final stage of the Atos complaints process – the so-called “Independent Tier” in itself makes any support the Government claims to have for openness, honesty and the importance of public accountability a bit of a joke.  It is no less than undemocratic.  DWP’s ‘defence’ is that the secrecy is contractual and revealing identity would put them in breach of contract and hint at having to pay Atos some form of compensation.  All I can say is:
·         Who on earth agreed such a ridiculous condition in the contract in the first place?  This supports the view that the public sector generally is very poor at contract negotiation and is frequently outmanoeuvred by its private sector ‘business partners’.
·         Why has nothing been done about it since?  The PM’s poetic reference to the “sterilising effect of sunlight” apparently only applies selectively.
Any suggestion that this tier is independent is a further embarrassment and it is worse that DWP defends the suggestion to the hilt – I guess they would prefer to look stupid defending the indefensible than admitting they have made a mistake and setting it right.  I know for sure however which approach is more honest and which would better help to re-establish their integrity & credibility.
The complaints process in DWP itself is also a rocky road and not that dissimilar to Atos in terms of skill & ability.  I’ll be in a better position in a few months to comment more authoritatively on its comparative performance.  All I can say at the moment is that it is overly pedantic and slow.  But if this is what it takes to achieve the right result, so be it for now.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

More Grayling Duplicity - quality measurement

It is always worth reminding ourselves of the duplicity and double-standards within DWP. 
The Government demands from the organisations it says it consults evidence to back up issues they highlight as needing to be addressed.  Often, without this evidence the recommendations are ignored as being unsubstantiated and therefore purely speculative.  It is however in complete contrast quite amenable to deploying precisely the same tactic itself – making claims and stating intentions that sound laudable, but have no foundation whatsoever – as shown here.
Lots of impressive sounding words in these resoponses, but the fact remains that not only are there no accuracy targets (which there should be) there are no accuracy MEASURES, so Grayling’s “commitment” to improving accuracy means absolutely nothing as he will simply never be in a position to know one way or the other.  This is the perfect position for a politician as although none of his statements can be proved, nor can they be disproved, so he can pretty much make it up as he goes along.
There are two very basic questions that the Goverment continually chooses to ignore:

1)      What is the best level of first-time accuracy we can expect of the current WCA process?
2)      It that good enough?
Or the other way round:
1)      What level of accuracy do we demand of a WCA process?
2)      Can the current process ever achieve it?
If you doubt any of this, have a look at the responses to this FoI request

It is equally worrying that the enigmatic Professor Harrington has not latched on to this serious omission and not made an appropriate recommendation to resolve in either of his first two reviews.
Added 18/06/2012 in response to Anonymous comment:

I’m guilty here of committing the sin for which I often criticise Grayling et al in not being clear about my assumptions.  Mine here is that the appeals rigmarole gets it right eventually, so the answer to your question is kind of both rolled together.
I could not agree more with what you say and it is very common for DWP to rely on and quote evidence that at best is not what it seems and at worse does not exist at all.  If there is a conspiracy here, organised or not, the venerable Professor Harrington has allowed himself to become part of it, possibly without realising (giving him the benefit of the doubt is becoming more and more difficult).  Continually telling us to be patient without any indication of what to ultimately expect is a complete cop-out.
The appropriateness of the descriptors is not helped by the fact that there is no definition of “work” either in terms of content or the impact it has on lifestyle.  All employers need above all else reliability and this is the very first thing many conditions prevent – there might be a lot you can do, but only as long as you have total discretion over when you do it.  The WCA has two “variables” – the work itself as well as the individual and the current process only covers one of them.  Interestingly, the roots of Occupational Health (which contrary to one viewpoint is NOT a radically new branch of medicine) are more in adapting workplaces to ensure safety and generate comfort and productivity than assessing individuals in isolation.
Personally, I can accept that the line between people who could do something work-like and people who can’t do anything work-like has been allowed to slip too low and needs to be inched up a bit.  Like it or not and at least for the time being conventional work is needed to generate conventional prosperity and it all falls apart if there are more taking out than putting in.  I can also accept that the “test” is a bit tricky to design in such a way that true working can be effectively simulated, but it is perfectly possible to have a far better fit than there is now.
One of my main beefs is the dishonesty displayed by DWP, which is born out of the ‘benefit scrounger’ philosophy:  we are all cheats and do not want to work so the only way to get an accurate assessment is through deception and subterfuge.  All this does in reality is increase the initial error rate by introducing vague and inconsistent rules of thumb to translate surgery generated data into a meaningful and reliable assessment of capability.  As with everything else, these rules of thumb may sound reasonable & plausible but have absolutely no foundation, which may in other arenas be ok, but not when the consequences of error can be so devastating.  Risk analysis is another management tool that is often conspicuous by its absence here and elsewhere.
Your second paragraph is also spot on so we can add hypocrisy to the list of DWP failings.  It confuses the difference between “consultation” and “support” and tries to claim the latter when is has barely performed the former.  This is all part of the ‘evidence-based’ charade.   In March 2011, the descriptor relating to bending & kneeling was scrapped – not modified – totally removed.  DWP’s justification is that bending/kneeling is no longer a feature of the modern workplace, brought about by hugely effective anti-discrimination legislation.  You can ponder on this when you next visit a supermarket to find that the bottom two shelves are now empty and when you find only the top two drawers in your 4-drawer filing cabinet are now in use.  It was clearly a transparent ruse to cut points.  Even more dishonest is the selective introduction of the hypothetical wheelchair to assess mobility – I have never encountered something so outrageous in all my life!
Another wholesale change as you say is unlikely and the Government is so entrenched in ‘outsourcing’ it is hardly likely to dump Atos, but a lot could be achieved if approached from the right standpoint and with the right priorities, attitudes and compassion.  The true error rate looks to be about 10% - much too high given the potential consequences of an error, but equally not as horrendous as many would have us believe.