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An accurate Work Capability Assessment should be the goal, but without trust it will be meaningless

03 April 2014

When Atos transfers responsibility of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) to a new provider in the next few months, it will be the goal of this provider to carry out a WCA that is as accurate an assessment of functional capability as possible.

And yet, it is a moot point whether the WCA is an accurate assessment if no one trusts that it is an accurate assessment.

The Work Foundation believes that the WCA is based on sound principle and intent, and that the concept of a functional capability assessment is an important aspect of our current social security system. However, it is important that this is experienced and perceived as such, and not as a tool to push people onto a cheaper type of benefit, or worse, as a punishment for incapacity.

The current level of public trust in the WCA is unsustainably low. Whilst the WCA is not without structural and operational problems - evidenced by the high rate of successful appeals and identified in recurring reviews by Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield - without a foundation of trust, any reform will be ineffectual. As the Litchfield review put it “People need to feel that they are being treated fairly when dealing with an organisation and it is their perception of that drives attitudes and behaviours more than any other objective assessment of what has happened.”

A WCA that is not trusted is costly, ineffective, and unsustainable. If a person does not trust the assessment that is made they are more likely to appeal it which can be an expensive and distressing process. If a person believes that they have been deemed as fit to work or fit to begin work-related activity as a punitive or cost-saving measure, back to work support is unlikely to be beneficial.  

Atos leaving the WCA early will provide an important moment for the Government to begin what should be a widely publicised culture change within the WCA. Trust should be built on mutual respect, and on communication. The recent Evidence Based Review of an alternative Work Capability Assessment found that the alternative assessment led to claimants having moderately increased faith that their assessor had gained a more complete picture of how fluctuations in their conditions affected their functional capacity.

Opening up the process, communicating fully with people who are being assessed, and involving patient representative organisations and relevant charities in this process are all vital steps. Ensuring that people trust that they will have access to the support they need to return to work, regardless of the benefit type they claim, must also follow.

Using improved trust, accompanied by accurate assessment, as the two goals of improving the WCA, encourages the provider and government to take into account the people involved in the process. Focusing on trust as an outcome prevents an inflexible, mechanistic, and ultimately ineffective system.