Mark Leftly: Work capability testing is a tough job – so call in the Greatest to do it


Mark Leftly@MLeftly
Friday 31 October 2014 01:59

Westminster Outlook Over 10 years, the 20 project team names used on The Apprentice have included “Phoenix”, the reborn bird of Greek mythology whose golden-red feathers shone so brightly as to emit pure sunlight, and “Apollo”, the son of Zeus and the God of truth.

Others opted for depressing management jargon, such as “Synergy” and “Venture”. This year, “Tenacity” is up against “Summit” in what sounds like a face-off from that staple of 1990s Saturday night television, Gladiators.

It’s easy to mock the utterly unjustified braggadocio of contestants who concoct these ludicrous names, but none have yet gone so far as to claim that they are “Maximus” – Latin for “greatest”.

But American businesses are not known for their self-effacement so perhaps it should come as little surprise that there is a $1.33bn (£832m) revenue group with that name based in Virginia. Worldwide, more than 11,000 Maximus staff help people on their “citizen journeys” – a truly horrid little phrase that fails in what is, presumably, its aim of evoking images of Roman democracy, but instead desecrates the roots of our shared language. I digress.

Maximus is a government contractor and, apparently, every time a person interacts with a state service, be it visiting a website or calling a contact centre, that is part of this banal citizen journey.

As Sir Alan Sugar’s contestants claim they give “110 per cent”, so Maximus asserts that its “commitment to serving the people is boundless”.

If we accept that this collection of words is not mere twaddle, then this inexhaustible devotion must mean Maximus provides excellent value for money indeed on welfare-to-work programmes and child support services in the US.

Certainly, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must think so, as it was confirmed yesterday that Maximus has landed a three-and-a-half year deal to test whether benefit claimants are fit enough to go to work.

This is a tough job: a Freedom of Information request earlier this year showed that the French IT company, Atos, had wrongly decided that nearly 160,000 sick and disabled claimants were fit to work between 2010 and 2013, and so were over-ruled by the DWP.

Atos’ contract to run work capability assessments, which must be completed before claims are processed, was supposed to run until next August.

But the group quit in March this year in what Atos said were the “best interests of all parties”. Labour claimed that the “chaotic handling” of the contract had left 600,000 claimants stuck in a backlog.

DWP had been searching for a replacement ever since. The mighty Maximus beat the FTSE 250’s Interserve to this dubious prize, and will run assessments to February 2018. This is thought to be worth £500m and could prove more lucrative still, should the parties later agree to the option of a two-year extension.

Interserve investors should not feel downhearted on missing out. Already this week their company has bagged several duds as part of a consortium that won £600m of work to manage swathes of probation, an essential service that the Government has pig-headedly decided to run for profit.

Those shareholders did not need another impossible contract that is almost certainly doomed to failure. Better to leave these assessments to the greatest.

Over the summer, Atos senior vice president Lisa Coleman told MPs that the group had struggled to make a profit out of the contract, while staff were reeling – and quitting – after they had become a “lightning rod” for public anger over the principle of the assessments.

Importantly, she pointed out that it was “massively over-simplistic” to believe that replacing Atos with AN Other from the private sector would do anything to alter that widespread opposition.

“We often find that when somebody makes a comment that Atos has done an assessment incorrectly, actually, against the policy, what has happened has been right,” she said, meaning the over-riding problem is the system, not the contractor.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, echoed the point yesterday, arguing that replacing Atos with another “profit-hungry provider” does not address his belief that the tests are simply Coalition excuses to “take benefits away”.

Maximus chief executive Richard Montoni might have wanted to chew over those words, rather than let his PR team waste ink on his belief that assessments “should be timely, respectful and fair”.

Since winning a separate DWP contract to get the long-term sick back to work, Internet warriors have looked to take down Maximus, citing the group’s failures.

These include settling a fraud lawsuit with the US Government for $30.5m related to work on a healthcare programme back in 2007, and repaying $500,000 in questionable expenses on a contract in Wisconsin some 14 years ago.

These are far from the worst issues in the histories of the many companies that in effect run the UK state, but the effort to trace them is a warning that with a higher-profile contract will come even closer scrutiny.

Even the greatest can make mistakes: Maximus should not have touched this contract.

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