Thursday 29 September 2016

Our €20bn social welfare black hole is a mystery beyond comprehension

Published 14/05/2013 | 17:00

THE space elevator is a science-fiction standard. Like teleporters, laser guns and green-skinned ladies with a twinkle in their eyes, space elevators are part of the sci-fi cannon.

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A space elevator is a very long tube, reaching up 20,000 miles into the sky, used to move people and spacecraft from Earth without using any fuel to launch them. To get a sense of scale, the elevator would be 20,000 miles up, but our highest skyscraper is 0.5 miles high, and Mount Everest is 8.5 miles high. It would take days just to ascend the elevator.

The elevator would be the largest man-made object ever constructed. If you were standing at the base of the elevator, it would be too wide to see across, and, because it would disappear into the clouds above, you would never see it in its entirety. There would be no way to physically access the scale and complexity of this human construct. We couldn't understand this thing we've built, this thing we've designed. And the elevator, for all its size, is just an elevator. It goes up, and down. And that's it.

When we create new things – technologies like the space elevator, organisations, processes, laws, even

new ways of thinking – we engage in a form of design thinking. Design is not just for products sold on the market. We design policies, and then people have to live within those policies. Importantly, when you set up an organisation around a set of policies, the organisation evolves, sometimes in unexpected ways. Left alone long enough, sometimes policies and government-controlled systems become so complex no one person, standing where they stand, could understand them all.

This is not an academic argument.

If the policies are badly designed, then people get hurt. A good example of a policy that hurts is a regressive tax cut, where those at the bottom of the income distribution get hit proportionally harder than those at the top. Budget 2013's €10 cut to child benefit was a regressive move. The policy, as designed, hurt many people. A more just solution – taxing child benefit – wasn't possible.

Take the Department of Social Protection. This department disburses more than €20 billion a year to hundreds of thousands of households. A partial list of the department's functions would cover things like jobseekers' allowances, training and education, workplace supports, JobBridge, child benefit, family income supplement, maternity benefits, adoption policies, carer's allowances and benefits, respite care, domiciliary care, partial capacity benefits, illness benefits, invalidity pensions, state pensions, free travel, and household benefits.

That list isn't even close to complete. The scale of the department is staggering. The department doesn't yet collect the kind of data that could help them begin to understand what is happening over time. Luckily, they know this.

In 2011 the department tasked UCD's Professor Colm Harmon and his colleagues to report on some of the areas the Department could improve on when managing one policy programme: the Live Register.

What's clear from the report is the vastness of the data gathering-process, and the simple things the department misses. So, for example, the department doesn't collect data on jobseekers' education levels over time, and much of the important data they need comes from other sources like Revenue, FAS, and other agencies.

The core points made by Professor Harmon's report are the need to build in evaluations into every programme before they start to be sure whether they work or not, and that the current data infrastructure is largely adequate. In plain English, there aren't enough people seeing the right type of data to make sense of what's going on.

Come back to the space elevator idea. Good design and data analysis is the only way to realise the best form an organisation or policy should take. Tools that help you see the bigger picture help you make better policies. In the US, is pioneering how to connect disparate data sets together to learn new things, by connecting agricultural data with weather data, for example. Ireland is following this trend in places with the remarkable site leading the way.

We can learn more about what's going on in Irish public life by collecting the right data and by developing what the designer John Thackara calls 'macroscopes': tools that help us understand, and act mindfully in, the big picture.

The civil servants at the Department of Social Protection and elsewhere in government can't, right now, think about redesigning the systems they work within.

They are too stretched, too pressurised, and most likely too demoralised to consider the design of the apparatus they operate. (Even if they were so inclined, they have the problem of being too close to the system). But another body, tasked with considering a redesign of the system, with input from the civil servants, could begin the process.

Stephen Kinsella is a, lecturer in economics at the University of Limerick

Irish Independent

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