A machine for killing relationality

This section from Virginia Eubank’s Automating Inequality has stuck in my mind. It describes the destructive roll out of an automated system for allocating benefits in Indiana, leaving tens of thousands of legitimate recipients caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare which required time, energy and know how at precisely the point where withdrawal of their expected income had plunged them into crisis. But what really stands out to me is how this machinery is intended to destroy the capacity of case workers to care about and help recipients. This came as part of a broader trend towards deskilling, outsourcing the process from public sector workers to (insecure) private sector alternatives and enmeshing everyone in a workflow system which sought to control what they did. But the automated system took this yet further, as she describes on pg 52-53:

No one worker had oversight of a case from beginning to end; when clients called the 1-800 number, they always spoke to a new worker. Because the Daniels administration saw relationships between caseworkers and clients as invitations to fraud, the system was designed to sever those links.

The allegation is that personal relationships between clients and case workers inject the potential for fraud into the system. This is a reaction to a broader politicisation of case work in which case workers came to identify as advocates for their clients, leading to a counter-attack tied to a broader neoliberal suspicion of the putatively lofty motives of public sector workers. But what this system seeks to do is something else entirely: prevent trust, understanding, empathy or any other relational good from emerging between actors representing the system and those making claims on that system. In this sense I suggest it is a machine for killing relationality.

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