Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Those who don’t count aren't counted

I recently witnessed an unemployed woman at a jobcentre shouting that she would never ever set foot in there again. The woman, who had just been told her benefits would be cut off for thirteen weeks, stormed past two security guards who turned to each other and joked “that’s another one off the books."

As she left the jobcentre and walked out of sight, she dropped off the claimant count, vanished from official statistics and possibly became one of more than a million invisible unemployed people in the UK. Or she may have found a job. We will never know.

Trying to find out the fate of jobseekers after they are sanctioned is almost impossible. The DWP only count how many people stop claiming benefits. Nobody in government seems to have wondered what happens after someone is cut off from all their money, so there are no figures showing how many sanctioned people continue to sign on, how many get jobs, how many simply disappear.

At this month’s Logan conference, data journalist Jean-Marc Manach talked about a similar experience of trying to find out how many people died while immigrating to Europe. When he began looking for answers he discovered that no EU member state held any data on migrants’ death. Why? In the words of one public official, dead migrants “aren't migrating anymore, so why care?” 

His award winning project The Migrant Files filled in the gap.

What counts? What's counted?

If you want to know what those in power do care about, a good place to start is to find out what data they collect.

In the case of migrants, European governments tend to want to keep the number low so they record the people who arrive and ignore the others who never quite made it.

With unemployed people, the DWP currently measure how many people leave the benefits system, not how many get jobs or start training, simply how many people stop claiming – this goal, their key target for jobcentres, is called ‘off-flow'.

In other words, data is collected which shows progress towards the outcome they want. Anything (or anyone) which falls outside of this tends to be ignored.


The trouble with these narrow targets is that they can produce nasty consequences.

It would hardly be surprising if the DWP’s sole target of ‘off-flow’ caused jobcentre staff to start applying a few more sanctions here and there, knocking more people off benefits and improving their performance statistics.

In response to four hour waiting time goals a few years ago, A&E staff began moving people around the hospital as the time limit approached, risking the patient's health as they tried to manage the figures.

And it’s not just pressurised employees who may change the way they do things. Those in power can do appalling things with one eye on the statistics. This year the British government decided it would stop saving drowning migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, claiming search and rescue operations acted as a ‘pull factor’ attracting more people to Europe. 

The story

The official data put out by local authorities or government departments frames the picture. Who's counting what is important to pick apart because the numbers create the narrative. They provide statistics for press releases, for newspaper headlines and for politicians to quote in parliament. 

“What gets measured gets managed” is how the management saying goes but often what is being managed is the public perception of an issue. The data may show a falling claimant count, shorter A&E waiting times or fewer migrants, with no mention of the havoc caused elsewhere.

It's hard to report on what cannot be seen. If drowned migrants and destitute unemployed people are invisible in official statistics they can begin to fade away in the public imagination.

Filling in the gaps

But the human cost of these policies usually appears somewhere. Research into the impact of sanctions in Brighton showed the knock on effect they were having on local mental health services, probation services and emergency food providers.

The angry, upset woman who left the jobcentre after being sanctioned may well have shown up at her local food bank, or A&E department within the next couple of weeks.

It’s only when you begin to fill in the gaps, or join the dots, or look beyond the narrow frame provided by the authorities that a truer, fuller picture begins to emerge. It’s not just what the data shows that's important it’s also what, and who, is missing.

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