Complexity, simplification and reality

As I mentioned in my “hello!” post, I’m going to start this blog by talking about a few key issues and trends I have noticed creeping into public policies and try to explain why I think they need to be more thoroughly understood.

First up, I want to talk about the trend of making policies “simpler”, through a process central government likes to call “simplification”. This usually comes with some sort of statement about how many pages of legislation and guidance have been ripped up, how jargon has been removed and how the law is changing so it can be understood by the person on the bus to somewhere, rather than a self selecting clique or claque of professionals, legal professors, judges or advocates.

But let’s get something out of the way quickly- simplification is a complex job.

I could “simplify” this post by reducing it to 10 words, but it probably wouldn’t make sense. I could “simplify” the monitor you are reading it on by reducing it to two colours and a handful of pixels, but instead of my words all you’d see is something resembling a chess board. I could “simplify” my language to the point that the definition and meaning of what I am trying to explain would be lost.

None of this would actually be simplification, but if I used crude measurements like the number of words used or how easily read each word was then I might think I had made a huge improvement when in actual fact I had made something much worse.

It’s also important to understand what a complex policy is and what ways they can come about. No, I’m not going to get into different theories of policy creation (we’d be here all day!) but try and sketch out where complexity can hide in a policy.

Most obviously, the legislation (primary or secondary, new or amendments) can be filled with clauses, sub-clauses, exceptions, exemptions and contradictions. My go to example (yes, I am sad enough to have such a thing) is Schedule 5 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006– that’s 10 pages and 63 clauses on what “income other than earnings” should be ignored for calculating Housing Benefit.

Even if the original law is neat, tidy and short, the guidance or procedures government have created based on the legislation could add complexity. The classic example of this is homelessness decision making. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 is relatively brief, has a lot of terms that are open to interpretation and can be neatly summarised into something not much longer than a page. But the guidance, all 268 pages of it, goes into much more detail, actually explains what some of the terms might mean and makes it clear what kind of things authorities have to do if they don’t want to fall afoul of the housing ombudsman and judiciary.

Finally for this sketch, the roles of applying a policy and defending it against other interpretations, especially in courts of law and justice, can add layer after layer of complexity. A government devising a policy may choose to go with little to no detail in the law and little to no guidance. These are, in the UK, very few and far between- it would potentially look something like an enabling act or the measures in the current draft of the European Union (Withdrawal Bill). But, just as that Bill and the article 50 notification before it found, even a very simple bill can become incredibly complicated as it transforms its way towards becoming policy.

The role of the courts is to act as an arbiter in cases of poor or ambiguous wording, to decide on whether other legislation is being breached and compare the policy with the rights enshrined in domestic, European and international law all come into play. Pages of caselaw, precedent, distinguished cases and decisions on reasonableness can make a supposedly simple policy hugely complex.

So whilst a government may say “I have made the law simpler” that does not automatically mean that the policy is any less complex. Indeed, it may mean that the guidance has to become more complex to cope for ambiguities in the law. Alternatively, a government could cut hundreds of pages of guidance, but this could mean there are huge gaps and uncertainties. Those making decisions would have to guess which way to read something and, if someone else disagreed, could end up with a court deciding between the interpretations. That, assuming it sets precedence, then gets written up into caselaw. The policy, no matter how simple to start with, takes another step towards becoming complicated.

This has all been quite theoretical so far, but let’s look at a couple of times governments have tried to introduce complexity and what has happened as a result.

When the 2010 government decided to cut planning guidance from 1,000 pages to “just 52” they didn’t say any of this. They also didn’t state that they were putting much of the onus of creating enforceable planning policies on local authorities, effectively vesting more powers in the local plan process and in turn expecting the planning inspectorate and courts to decide on any resulting disagreements. They don’t count the hundreds of pages each individual planning authority has to produce as “guidance” in their local plans, just that they had cut their own overarching guidance. They also don’t look at the planning inspectors and courts scratching their heads wondering where to start with appeals, let alone trying to be consistent and reasonable between different authorities.

It’s exactly these ambiguities that have led to different methodologies appearing, including how to set the overall housing targets, which is now a local authority role. Some authorities have done it one way, coming out with one result and others another way. Which is right? Let’s check the government’s guidance. There isn’t anything to confirm it, so it is left those signing off the document (the Inspector and Secretary of State) to make a decision. Has “simplification”, in this case significantly cutting down guidance, made this process more simple? Short answer: no.

In another example, at least a few politicians in central government have met their match in trying to “simplify” benefits. Most notably, the creation of Universal Credit to weld together an array of means tested benefits into one “simpler” whole. There’s plenty to be said about many parts of this approach (and I’m sure I’ll come back to it in the future), but on this occasion I want to look at just one small but important component.

The Severe Disability Premium is one of those welfare rights shibboleths (if you understand it you are a “welfare rights person”) and exists in almost all means tested benefits created in the last 30 years. It’s infuriatingly complicated, but in as few words as possible, it is intended to help people who live by themselves and due to a disability need to be cared from another person, but nobody gets paid carers allowance for looking after them. It helped single people with disabilities, those who live in households with many people with disabilities (the “living by yourself” test doesn’t include other severely disabled people- I told you it was complex!), those whose partners and carers have gone to live permanently in nursing homes and those who have been bereaved.

So it is devilishly complicated to administer correctly, but it attempts to meet a clear need that some people genuinely have. Whoever designed this part of Universal Credit clearly thought it was far too complicated for these days of benefit simplification and decided not to include it.

Someone claiming Universal Credit with these needs will have to find other ways to get the additional support they may require to look after themselves or go without something they could have otherwise afforded, such as food, heating, etc.  It’s as simple as this- the person with a severe disability and no-one caring for them now has a life that is significantly more complicated as a result of the government’s “simplification”.

Coming back to the wider picture of Universal Credit, can we therefore be surprised that the Trussell Trust claim there is a spike in food bank whenever an area rolls out the benefit? Perhaps when the government talks of a “simplification” the first response from everyone else should be “who does this simplify things for?”.

Or, to put it another way, perhaps trying to make life “simpler” is why rough sleeping has increased 134% since 2011?

Which brings me to the point of this admittedly long-winded article. Simplification is great if it cuts out needless complications. But policies are often complex because people’s lives are complicated. The laws on the statute book, the current guidance and the body of caselaw are all there, at least in part, in order to respond to this reality.

Trying to wish away social complexity may make government and administration smoother, but it almost certainly won’t help society. Lines outside food banks, many including working people, may suggest a simple welfare policy, but they do not suggest an effective one. They also do not suggest people’s lives are simple.

A simple policy is one that is straightforward to navigate. But part of that is clarity, part of it is a lack of ambiguity (and a need not to go to court to reconcile any ambiguities!) and part of it is that the resulting policy actually reflects reality.

To put it another way, oversimplification can lead to all sorts of complexity.


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