In the brilliant TV Wipe review of 2016, Charlie Brooker satirically sat reading the Bubble Dweller Weekly and EchoChamber magazines, only half-joking that this was the story of the year. Listening only to people like us was one reason leading to a splurge of paranoia about fake news, and news fakers claiming all news was fake, and to a call for all of us to do some fact-checking before ranting and raving about what we read on Facebook.
There’s something abstract about the idea until you apply it like a filter over some of the work we do on poverty, financial inclusion and social justice.
Whatever I think about Brexit, nothing more succinctly sums up my lack of surprise that the media and most career politicians called it wrong than the phrase ‘metropolitan elite’. To me it more than describes how out of touch with public mood intellectuals and city dwellers were and epitomises the disconnect between designers of social policy and the communities who are supposed to benefit. In simple terms, it too often assumes everyone lives their lives the same way, experiences the world the same and shares the same interests.
If there’s one thing we knew before we launched Quids in!, it was this would be a false assumption. It’s why we looked to The Sun and Take A Break magazine to design our basic template and editorial style. It’s why we said we didn’t want it to look like any kind of public information guide, the kind of stuff the Money Advice Service (MAS) went on to churn out a couple of years after we started.
In its new annual report, in the very first paragraph, MAS chairman Andy Briscoe proclaims: “Our work at the Money Advice Service has never been more important. The volatility that has shaken global financial markets will inevitably feed through to ordinary households. The pressures are nowhere greater felt than for those just managing to get by: one small shock – an unexpected bill, for example – can tip the delicate balance.”
For me, MAS misfires from there. It has spent the past few years categorising, segmenting and analysing. By their own definition, there’s a group struggling more than those who are ‘just about managing’ and unsurprisingly, MAS calls them the ‘Struggling’. They are doing less well than the ‘Squeezed’, of course, but it’s the squeezed MAS have set out to help, describing them at a number of financial capability network events as ‘where there is an obvious gap in the market for support’. Supposedly, the struggling groups queuing out the doors at foodbanks or wondering how to get to a job interview while they wait for their first Universal Credit payment to arrive are well-catered for.
MAS describes itself as ”independent service, set up by government” but these are the words from Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister:
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.
“If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.”
And through the Money Advice Service, she is addressing them, and their needs, directly. Just as Andy Briscoe says. Using the same words.
Independent, MAS? I don’t think so.
Still, it’s interesting that May’s speech acknowledges the need to engage ordinary families, coming as it did on the back of Brexit and David Cameron’s departure. She means engaging the so-called ‘JAMs’ with Westminster bureaucrats, politicians and decision-makers have disconnected.
This chasm is closer to home than we often like to think. When I first set out to help long-term unemployed people into work by linking up with employers who were also stakeholders in their success, I started with social landlords. There was some well-meaning words, some support in principle and a couple of pilot projects. Then one housing manager let the cat out of the bag with the most honest response: “The real problem is that our staff just don’t want people like that working here.”
This is the naked truth. Generally speaking, there is no love lost between the haves and the have nots, on either side. There is jealousy of either wealth or ‘money for nothing’ benefits. There is a knowledge-based stand off between those who ‘know how things work’ and those who ‘know how things really are’. There is belief that the other is not all they think they are and both sides are happier at parties with ‘people like us’.
The greatest example of social design gone badly awry because it makes all the wrong assumptions is Universal Credit, the theme of QIPN’s special report this month. Given how complex it is, and on how many layers it fails, I’ll use what Quids in! has settled on for its heuristic-style top three issues, the 3 Bs:
It assumes everyone has equal access to IT and the internet, (first B = Being online). Designers failed to recognise a lack of skills, poor training and free-to-use resources, a low level of literacy and numeracy, and a fundamental disinterest in the internet among many claimants.
It believes everyone has or can get a bank account, (second B = Banking). One in 20 Quids in! readers say they have been turned down for an account, revealing the architects of UC mistakenly believed that punters have ready access to ID and that the banks will welcome them with open arms when, in fact, even Basic Bank Accounts (with no risk of fees for going into debt) are only offered as a last resort.
And finally, the third B is Budgeting. Who wants to talk about income and expenditure until you know ends won’ meet? Claimants can probably be split into two distinct groups: Those who know exactly where every last penny is going – because they feel they have to. And those who don’t... who won’t realise until the rent arrears letters start arriving. So, for those of us providing frontline support (who talk to people whether they’re ‘like us’ or not) it’s little surprise take up can be very low for the DWP-sponsored budgeting sessions often laid on by Citizens Advice.
Fault is not automatically on the side of the so-called ‘metropolitan elites’ but as the ones with access to information, more means to use it and the responsibility for social design, I’m challenging them right now. Universal Credit should have been co-designed with claimants and other stakeholders, not rolled out and improved ‘dynamically’ (ie, at the literal expense of those on benefits). The Money Advice Service should also try a session or two in among ‘Struggling’ communities before it announces it’s the ‘just about managing’ whose money worries are ‘nowhere greater felt’.
And we should all RSVP ‘NO’ to parties where invites are only for ‘people like us’.