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This summer I am working for the British government as a state benefits signing clerk, on a temporary contract. My job title is "Customer Service Officer", I am a civil servant. I have not been asked to sign either the Data Protection Act or the Official Secrets Act.

My job is to interview a set number of customers per day, and sign them onto their Jobseeker's Allowance -- more commonly known as The Dole. I must ascertain if my customer is eligible for the benefit, or if they should sign off to claim another type of benefit (or none at all). Once this is done, I should help my customer in any way I or they see fit -- by providing a job search service or referring them to other internal or external resources.

The Penzance system

The prevailing image of the government dole office is a long, winding queue of unsavory types getting angry as a line of bored-looking civil servants call them forward one-by-one with an electronic take- a- ticket system. This ingrained image of the benefits office was only strengthened by the film, The Full Monty, and it's famous line dancing jobseekers.

Things have actually moved on a little since then. There are still the unsavory characters, and the clerks are still bored looking, but fewer people are violent and the whole system is a lot more organised.

Jobcentres now run the Penzance System, so called because it was first implemented in Penzance. Under this scheme, each customer is assigned a time, a day, a cycle and a colour. The cycle tells them which week to turn up -- each customer should sign fortnightly. The time and colour direct the jobseeker to a specific colour coded desk at a specific time.

For example, as I write, I am a clerk on the Kingfisher blue desk, signing customers between 9am and 4pm, on the Thursday "R" cycle. So if your Penzance slot is KF-Blue Thurs-R, 10.25, you'll be signing with me.

Setting up

So, the first job after clocking on is to find the tray for your desk that corresponds to the day, cycle and colour that you will be signing. Each is a solid metal tray about 70cm long and 15cm wide. It contains all the LMU (Labour Market Units) claim files for the day -- one each for each of your customers. These LMU packs contain all the relevant, current paperwork associated for a particular customer.

With your tray sorted, and in position on your little pedestal next to your desk, the next step to get yourself logged onto the computer systems that signing clerks use. The whole system runs under Windows NT 4; with an extra hardware security layer -- on top of every keyboard is a slot for a swipe card. If this card (your PID) isn't in the slot, the machine is locked.

Signing clerks have limited access to two main systems:

And although it doesn't sound very important, another handy application to have open is one off Window's own accessories - the humble clock. Signing is done to a very tight schedule, so it's a good idea to be very aware of the time.

Just sign here for me, please...

At nine am, the doors open to the general public and the meat and potatoes work of a signing clerk begins. Customers come into the building and wait for their name to be called at their assigned time. There are touch screen jobsearch "jobpoints" for Jobseekers to use whilst they wait, but these are frequently not working.

What tends to happen is the customers gather together in groups to chat and give overworked clerks mean looks.

The process of a standard five minute long "fortnightly jobsearch review" is:

  • Identify and call customer.
    The first step is to pull the next LMU pack from your tray, and type the National Insurance Number into LMS to bring up their details. It's also a good idea to copy this to the clipboard, as you'll be using it a lot later on. Once you have the customer's details to hand, shout their name out: "Mister BuffcorePhil please!"
     
  • Check the customer's ES40.
    Assuming the customer is on time and now sat in front of you, the next step is to say "hello!  and check their ES40. This is a little yellow booklet that contains all their details and terms and conditions of their claim. This is basically used as their proof of ID, which is surprisingly easy to get around -- people often sign with other people's ES40 booklets to collect friends' money, for example if a customer has gone for Her Majesty's Pleasure.
     
  • Check and act on any outstanding Conversations.
    Next, you need to click the "Convs" button on LMS. This brings up a list of messages that officers have left whilst dealing with that specific customer. These can be about pretty much anything -- late attendances, payments, job search, whatever. These typically consist of a string of acronyms, as signing clerks speak another language: "dnaot; int 23-07 letter to be posted out? > checked > closed re different 673". Baffling.
     
  • Proceed with the jobsearch review and Interventions.
    Perhaps the most important aspect of the interview is to check that the customer is sticking to his Jobseekers Agreement. This is a contract drawn up to decide what the jobseeker will do each week to look for work. Each action taken by the jobseeker -- checking the local press, contacting employers and so on -- is recorded in an intervention. If the clerk is satisfied that the customer has kept to his JSA, then a payment can be issued.
     
  • Perform a quick SOC search for a job.
    Using LMS, the clerk should now look through the available job vacancies to see if any are suitable for the customer, and submit the customer to the employer if any are found. This is really, really important -- Jobcentre offices and officers are judged on the number of job submissions and job entries they achieve.
     
  • Issue a payment for the customer.
    This is absolutely vital. The customers tend to complain if they don't receive their entitled pay. To issue a payment, a clerk must Alt-tab into JSAPS and confirm the customers attendance with dialogue number 470. Confirmation of payment details can be viewed with dialogues 504 and 502. The status of a claim can be checked with number 510.
     
  • Ask the customer if there is anything else you can do for them.
    Hopefully, there won't be. But sometimes, the customer will want to know about their claim, or change their address, payment method, post office, change their claim in some way, or any other number of things. It's then down to the clerk to either deal with it or pass it on to someone who can.
     
  • Say goodbye and move on...
    Send the happy customer on his way, and then proceed with the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat.
     

That's just a standard, run-of-the mill interview. Add in customers who do part time work, have children or partners claiming other benefits, people signing off, clerical cases, missing Girocheques, payment problems, holiday and sickness forms, asylum seekers, confirmation of benefits, crisis loans, and you soon have a pretty hectic day if things go wrong.

Acronyms and jargon

After the customers, the next largest hurdle for signing clerks (and, I suspect the entire Civil Service) is jargon. Everything has an acronym or abbreviation. You don't fill out a "Part-time earnings form", you complete a B7 and an A15c. You don't go on holiday, you complete an ES674 or ES674c. Customers aren't late, they FTA or FTS. Hell, customers don't have names, just NINOs.

The quiet after the storm

By 4 o'clock, all the customers of the day have signed, or failed to sign, and all those little jobs that you didn't have time to do during the day can be completed. Forms get faxed and employers rung, and then the two end- of- the- day jobs can be completed:

  • Ringing the failed to sign customers.
    All the clerks get on the phone their customers that haven't attended and try to find out why. It's pretty important for two reasons: if the customer has started work, they need to sign off and stop defrauding the department; or, if the customer has forgotten to sign, they need to come in within five working days - because...
     
  • Shut down claims for people more than five working days late
    ...we shut claims down that are a week or more late. Shutting a claim down involves putting some numbers and dates into two dialogues on JSAPS - 60 and 99, specifically. Once a claim is closed, that's it - no more benefits.
     

Once that's all done, put your box away, clock off and go home. Another exciting day in the civil service!

Resources

Here's a list of handy online reference points I've found useful; both whilst writing this node and whilst I've actually been doing the job.

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