Halfway through my week at the front line

As you know, if you’ve been following me on Twitter, this week, I’ve been working at the front line of the Department – in a Job Centre in a challenging area in Scotland.

Banking readers: Job Centres are the UK goverment’s centres that help unemployed people find work. They are also the face to face contact points for administration of benefits that the govermment pays to people out of work.

Anyway, in my Job Centre, I’ve been working with the staff as they’ve dealt with a range of things, from bereavements to people with no money at all (as they’ve lost their benefit payments, and now may be sleeping out in the snow).

Did you know there are money illegal money lenders walking the streets, who forcibly take the money people on benefits get? They hover around outside and take away what people get to pay for food and shelter.

It is presently snowing here.

So you get all these people coming in who have nothing, who explain that they’ve “lost their money”, because they are worried what will happen to them if anyone from the Government knows they’ve dealt with an illegal financial service.

When you are sitting around after a crisis loan interview, hearing what is likely going on behind the face the customer has presented, the experience is extremely eye-opening. Staff were telling me about the (regular) times they’ve had to tap on the glass to wake up drug-affected people in interviews, for example.

Drug dealers and money lenders. Two financial traps for vulnerable people. You can imagine my wide-eyed response, having sat in my nice comfortable cocoon in London all this time.

But here is another thing I’ve found in this Job Centre, and it is something I’m not surprised about.

Staff build their own stuff to get around the limitations of systems we provide. There are Excel based spreadsheets which are used for diary management (“oh, I can’t have this open too long, otherwise no-one else will be able to make appointments”). There is email based workflow, where each step is a new inbox that gets manually monitored. And there’s any number of self-made data capturing things that are used for statistics and business reporting.

And all of it is stitched together with another technology: paper. They create their own forms, and their own paper based systems in order to supplement their jobs.

Consequently, the work is processed in a highly efficient way. I’d make a guess that each JobCentre does things slightly differently, depending on how good their custom additions to each of our centrally provided processes are.

If there was ever proof needed that decentralisation of the core is a good thing, then I’ve been immersed in it for the week so far.

I wonder what would happen if we put the appropriate end-user computing tools in the hands of these people and said “design the perfect Job Centre system”. My guess would be something good.

6 Responses to“Halfway through my week at the front line”

  1. Bob Sinclair
    February 4, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    You may enjoy this video which discusses the approach of design thinking: http://blog.ted.com/2009/09/a_call_for_desi.php

  2. February 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    I am a big follower of TED (and may even go this year, if I am allowed) and had seen the video. Fantastic. Actually, I watch TED on my iPhone in the Gym every morning…. it is an amazing distraction for the pain of exercise 🙂
    Thanks so much for posting!

  3. Stephen
    February 5, 2010 at 1:42 am #

    A play 2 Win strategy might focus on getting people back into the workplace? – unemployment is a very damaging force for individuals, and introduces many more costs to society and the individuals themselves than the financial costs of benefit payments alone.

  4. February 5, 2010 at 4:33 am #

    Absolutely. And I can assure you we are concentrating on that at present. That was the whole point of the crowd-sourced strategy thing we did a few weeks ago. To get the level of detail we needed to make a reasonable proposition.

  5. Cathy Campbell
    February 5, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    "I wonder what would happen if we put the appropriate end-user computing tools in the hands of these people and said “design the perfect Job Centre system”."
    I think this is a great idea, James. This is what DWP LEAN is doing with processes and systems around the department. Why not computing tools too?
    I do think though that JCP staff's tendency to invent their own forms and systems at a local level is partly down to the fact that they don't always trust or understand how to use the tools they've been given. That's how it felt when I was managing a local office a few years back. So it's a culture issue as well as a technology issue. But empowering staff to contribute to the design of the technology solutions they use may help foster a culture of trust in that technology.
    Enjoy the rest of your week at the front line!

  6. Craig Corke
    February 19, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    All very interesting stuff. I came from a background of 10 years on the frontline in various local offices and ended up moving to JC plus IT support before transitioning to EDS and then HP. My primary role is still supporting DWP account and its always been very close to my heart. I suppose at the core I still feel part of what the DWP works so hard to achieve.
    In my experience the requirements for the apps and various systems could all benefit from far far more input from the people on the front line. Local knowledge is 90% of the battle if you are going to have any chance of helping the DWP customers.
    There always was some fantastic local practices out there, people having to actually use these systems in anger usually find the most efficient way of working but the problem was these tended to remain far too local and the procedures far too entrenched in sticking to whats in black and white.

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