Based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for measuring the employability of sick and disabled people and deciding their access to incapacity benefits in the UK has been subjected to a barrage of public criticism. The assessment is claimed to be narrow and that people are treated harsh and unfair. As a response, several commentators have made calls for a ‘real world’ assessment that takes into account broader considerations than the current assessment design (Baumberg et al., 2015; Berthoud, 2011; Warren et al., 2014; Spartacus Network, 2014). Such considerations should include skills, age and labor market condition, which are seen as important factors that affect a person’s employability.

The WCA is introduced in several western welfare states, among them Norway. The Norwegian assessment design employs such a ‘real world’ assessment that has been called for by British commentators. The assessment is carried out in a highly professionalized front line service and includes a broad range of considerations, such as working experience, education, competence and skills, personal opportunities and challenges, requirements and expectations of working life and the labour market, in addition to health. The Norwegian front line professionals are thus provided a wide discretionary space. According to the British call for a ‘real world’ assessment, discretion is something that should be avoided to ‘ensure consistency’, (Baumberg et al., 2015:14). It is argued that (based on other countries’ experiences) a ‘real world’ assessment can be standardized by using databases that match labour market information and occupational information with individual characteristics. Such a standardized ‘real world’ assessment entails a bureaucratic, rules-based mode of decision-making.

However, in the article I argue that a ‘real world’ assessment may be too complex to be standardised as there are too many individual considerations to make in the ‘real world’. For instance, there may be people applying for an incapacity benefit who suffer from a complex disease or disability with no clear-cut answers to what type of occupations they could manage. A standardized ‘real world’ assessment then risks being too rigid, which may not improve the perceived fairness among claimants. ‘Real world’ assessments represent highly individual considerations that requires the use of discretion. From a Norwegian perspective, there has even been calls for a more extended ‘real world’ assessment than the current one, which employs even stronger emphasis on the complex social aspects of claimants’ lives and not just on work and employability (Caswell and Innjord, 2011).

Hence, it may be claimed that the joint assessment of a person’s working capability and a decision on benefit eligibility, are incompatible. The first requires a professionalised approach which is knowledge-based, need and client-oriented. The second requires a bureaucratic, rules-based and accurate assessment.

You can access the full article ‘Regulating Inflow or Outflow: A Comparison of the Work Capability Assessments in the UK and Norway’ free of charge until the end of February 2016 here.

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