By Charlotte Pell, Vanguard Consulting

Sarah, a human being from Redcar, lost her job. She applied for Universal Credit online and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. When she rang the help line to find out what was going on, the operator said, ‘I’m sorry, it hasn’t registered your claim due to a technical error. Please re-apply by telephone’.

Sarah re-applied by phone, supplying the same information she entered online. Halfway through the application, the operator said, ‘The portal has fallen over. It does this a lot. The data isn’t lost, but I can’t see the application right now. I’ll ring you back tomorrow’.

After a second call to complete the application, a letter invited Sarah to a face-to-face interview and asked her to bring four pieces of supporting evidence. At the interview, Sarah is told the letters aren’t right. They tell her, ‘I’m sorry, but “it” won’t let me pay UC until you have submitted a fifth piece of evidence’. Sarah would have to make another appointment.

Unfortunately, there were no delays with Sarah’s bills. They arrived promptly as usual in the post. As a result of the stress and uncertainty, Sarah’s health deteriorated as she lost control of her normally well-managed diabetes and her anxiety returned. She struggled to get her children ready for school and when she did, they turned up ill-prepared and tired. The school alerted social services and Sarah got a visit.

After 23 weeks her first Universal Credit was paid, and Sarah started to rebuild her life.

Some will say that this shouldn’t have happened, that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) could have done this or that differently, or that Sarah was unlucky. But this is what does happen, all the time. ‘It’ got in the way of helping Sarah get her money.

What is this ‘it’? I knew what the operator meant. You know what he meant. The same ‘It’ is everywhere. It runs much of the public sector. It spews out the wrong letters to the wrong people. It gets the amounts we are owed wrong. It does things in 10 working days. It doesn’t do things in 10 working days. It generates letters we don’t understand. It is inflexible. It can only deal with one part of our query at a time. It doesn’t listen or understand. It certainly doesn’t care. It can only go in one order and at a certain speed. It doesn’t recognise anything outside its boxes. It loses documents. It tells us we are third in the queue. It is very sorry. It gives us a unique customer reference number. It tells us our session has timed out. It takes a very long time. It makes us angry.

But ‘it’ cannot deal with variety.

It forces people like Sarah into crisis situations.

What can deal with variety? What can deal with people with a variety of needs? What can deal with people who express their needs differently? What can adapt to different speeds and take things in a different order? What can react quickly, listen, reassure and explain? What can make decisions and judgements quickly? What can learn? What can connect with us?

The answer isn’t a what. It’s a who. The answer is a human being. Only human beings can deal with the variety of demand that hits a service like UC. Only a human being can deal with the variety of needs and circumstances involved when people claim benefits or tax credits. But not just any human being – someone who has the authority and expertise to make a decision.

Ask a housing benefits manager how many types of claims they process a year, and the answer will be as many claims as they get. There are no ‘types’. There is just endless variety. The same is true when it comes to the change in a claimant’s circumstances – even more variety.

Many housing benefits managers have learnt that to absorb this endless variety, benefit claimants should be seen by a senior benefits adviser as soon as they claim. Claimants arrive, get their claims sorted quickly and go away again. They don’t keep coming back with questions and bits of paper. There is no front and back office split. Instead, there is just one benefits office with one purpose – to help people claim the right amount of benefit at the right time. If claimants’ circumstances change, they are more likely to tell the benefits adviser, because they know the process will be hassle free. The purpose of these offices is no longer to answer phones, send out letters and fill in forms. Managers have learnt that although unit costs might be higher, letting the customer see the expert is much cheaper overall because there are far fewer repeat calls, visits, errors and complaints.

Simple, eh?

And yet government plans to give ‘it’ more power with proposals for the full Universal Credit Digital Service. Big IT companies will tell ministers that, oh yes, of course it will work. Of course the digital service will be flexible and of course it will be easy for claimants to understand. There will be guidance notes, drop-down menus and a help line. The IT will be ‘deliverable within the timescale and on budget’. But as soon as it comes up against real people it will fail. Claimants will ring the help line because they want to speak to a human being. The call centres will struggle to cope with ‘unanticipated demand’. Costs will rise.

Only people can absorb variety. Only people can listen and respond. Only people can make judgements.

Sarah didn’t get the help she needed because of the design of the system. The operatives were hamstrung by the IT.

Ministers should end the reign of unthinking scripts and screens. They should choose to put the human being, the expert and the most intelligent machine we have, where it matters: right in front of the customer.

Charlotte Pell