Saturday, 25 October 2014

Electronic Signing

Unless you look at the BBC news red button or news app, or are claiming job seekers allowance you probably won’t know anything about this.
   The BBC reported on the 24th October that the government is investing in a digital revamp of the UK’s jobcentres.
   Instead of signing a piece of paper given to the claimant by a human being, the unemployed will in future have to sign a digital pad to make their claim.
   The report makes this sound like it is something that will happen in the future but it is happening now.
   Not every jobcentre has the digital pad yet, but the idea of getting help there is a thing of the past. I have heard of a recent claimant being told the jobcentre was only there for people to sign on. People are expected to look on-line themselves to find jobs. Gone are the podiums that had the jobs listed, gone are the people you could take the details to for further information. Gone are the public-access phones.
   The BBC report states that this system is being tested at London Bridge Jobcentre, but it is also being used at other Jobcentres around the country. There will be PC workstations and free wi-fi but no one to offer help, just monitors to make sure clients are not misusing the machines for other things.
   The report goes on to comment on the issue of hacking but I think the concerns should go further than this. There are several things that worry me. While I am a fan of technology, quick to use new things, I have ebook readers and tablets as well as a smart phone, we haven’t got to the stage yet where everyone is competent with technology. I have worked all my life with new gadgets moving from a manual typewriter through to the latest laptops. But if I were a cleaner, shopworker or a computer-phobe I might well find using a PC workstation totally daunting, especially with no help available.
   Another concern is not just hacking but system failure. Computer systems fail and crash all the time. Ask anyone who has tried to use an ATM and found the entire network has crashed. I have been without a phone all day today because the computerised digital booster I need has failed and no one seems to know why. Ask anyone who uses a computer regularly and they will relate times when systems have failed. What contingency plans are there in place for failure?
   But ignoring all the glitches and hiccups there might be, there is one fundamental thing that this digital technology will never match. Human contact. Jobcentre staff may not be the most welcoming of people, but they do at least interact with clients, even if only for a few minutes. For some people this human contact is very important.
   The other thing is, with these machines replacing people that means Jobcentre staff may well find themselves on the other side of the desk, signing on. Where are the jobs for these people? The Government is boasting about getting the jobless figures down, but what will happen to those who lose out to digital technology? Is this where the £2m savings per year is coming from?  Anyone who has to sign on will tell you staff has been cut dramatically since this last government took office; some of the jobs sub-contracted out to private firms who get paid for filling positions. Sounds a bit like sacking Peter to pay Paul to me. I would love to know if these contracts come in cheaper than paying civil servants to man the Jobcentres, especially as I doubt the veracity of some of these firms. I heard of at least one case where an offer of an interview was classed as a successful application even though the applicant couldn’t make the interview let alone managed to get the job.
   So what do you think? Is it ok for Jobcentres to be run by robots?