Vol. 24 No. 12 (December 2014) 554-557

LAW IN A COMPLEX STATE: COMPLEXITY IN THE LAW & STRUCTURE OF WELFARE, by Neville Harris. United Kingdom: Hart Publishing. 2013. 310 pp. Paperback $50.00, ISBN: 978-1-84946-445-1.

Reviewed by Victoria A. Redd, University of Florida Levin College of Law Journal Offices. Email:

As retirement approaches people start to think about Social Security (a federal program created to provide benefits to retiring citizens), and begin to ponder the question: “Is there going to be enough money?” In fact, the Annual Gallup Economy Poll listed it as Americans’ top financial concern (Dugan 2014). Social Security began in 1935 to provide social insurance and benefits to those who needed assistance due to inadequate or no income. Similar social welfare programs exist in other countries (Wise 2012).

Those interested in questions around the law and structure of welfare can feed their desire to know more about this topic by reading Neville Harris’s LAW IN A COMPLEX STATE: COMPLEXITY IN THE LAW & STRUCTURE OF WELFARE, which imparts a great deal of knowledge regarding the social welfare system. LAW IN A COMPLEX STATE focuses on the United Kingdom and also examines other social welfare systems. Harris, a professor of law at the University of Manchester since 2000 and the Editor of the JOURNAL OF SOCIAL SECURITY LAW, has written an analysis of the complexities involved in the social welfare system and government entities. His book takes the complex legal framework that makes up a social welfare program and tries to explain this “rule-based area” of government with “examples of simplification measures and strategies that have been adopted” (p. 30). Harris takes special care to show how social rights give an entitlement to citizens who have fundamental needs (p. vi).

Harris separates his analysis into three parts. He starts with a definition of the welfare system in Chapter 1 entitled “Complexity and Welfare” exploring the problems of welfare, especially in regard to the context of the law (Harris uses the word complexity in reference to how “a state is organized to conduct its functions” and how policy is managed) (p.1). The following two Chapters (2-3) begin with “The Design, Structure and Management of the Welfare System,” (p. 34) discussing the reasons why the system is so complex and ends with “Rules and the Measurement of Complexity” (p. 76) discussing the “measurement of complexity [and] an effective basis for it” or simply the rules of the system. The final section includes Chapters 4-6 assessing the complexity of the welfare system and how it affects the lives of those it seeks to help. This complexity that Harris is examining are the claimants’ trials that have to be faced—the “customer journey,” or the “revision, review, or appeal process” (pp. 117, 142, 189).

Customers or claimants who use social security or the social welfare programs offered by their government (whether it be the United States, United Kingdom, or some other country) most often are thought to find the “customer journey” to be frustrating, and the amount of paperwork involved to be excessive; however when it comes down to it, “most [government] impact assessments [*554], which are published at the time of major reforms, ‘failed to assess the burden on claimants, such as the costs of completing forms and requesting advice’” (p. 121). A Social Security Fact Sheet regarding the U.S. Social Security Administration rated customer satisfaction at 82%, giving it a high public approval with need for improvement as “one of the highest of all participating Federal Agencies” (SS Fact Sheet). But these ratings were based on those customers who were already receiving benefits—complexity of the system and its need for major reform plays a role in how claimants view the initial phase of the benefit system, such as applying for a disability pension or social security (p. 125). Many countries have gone to “online” claiming adding another “degree of complexity” and in addition many claimants have obstacles such as mental, learning, or language difficulties, financial burdens, and cultural hardships that play a significant role in their making a claim (p. 127).

Harris begins Chapter 4, “Claims and Their Administration,” by discussing the “degree of complexity” (p. 117) in the system. However, in order to measure the degree of complexity Harris breaks the area of complexity down into four categories: “The Design” which includes underlying aims, coverage, basis of entitlement, and reform; “Extrinsic Complexity” referring to the number of government agencies that are involved and how many benefits the individual is entitled to (“working the system” as some may call it can really increase the number of agencies involved); “Management” related to the organization structure and how information is used; and finally the “Law” and how it is applied in each case (p.113-15). Keep in mind that “the measurement of complexity remains problematic,” but the evidence of the problem is more obvious. In addition, there are other aspects to consider, such as compliance costs and characteristics of claimants. Compliance costs would be time and money costs and psychological costs. Characteristics of a claimant would include education, language, and assistance needed. (How would a blind claimant complete benefit paperwork online, or someone who is computer illiterate? Especially, when Social Security personnel stress that because of privacy they need to interact with only the claimant).

Harris finds these complexity issues to be confusing because “measuring complexity scientifically is almost impossible” (p. 111). Included is a table that represents complexity levels (p. 113). Throughout the book, Harris suggests that the Social Security system needs to be simplified. His solution is to concentrate policy into one agency, and in turn “generate less error and risk of fraud” because you have reduced duplication of services (and managed to cut costs while you were doing this). Unfortunately, with all the departments that will be eliminated—to move to a “one agency system,”— will be politically difficult (Epstein 1995).
Another aspect of Social Security, which few hear about, is the “obligations of benefit recipients”—which takes the role of “passive recipient[s] of public largesse” and changes it to a more active role (p. 192). This concept adds a degree of responsibility to those receiving the benefits, including an obligation to notify the authorities when there is a change in the receiver’s circumstances, attendance or participation in meetings, or interviews that are required for the benefit program you are in, and if you do [*555] not meet the restrictions, a threat of termination or possible overpayment leading to fraud. William Beveridge refers to this as “co-operation between the state and the individual” (p. 192). And, “the state should offer security for service and contribution” (p. 192). But some feel that the government has taken the “something for something” approach and burdened the recipient with more responsibility than is fair. (Some feel that the government requirements make better citizens, such as requiring someone to participate in job training so they will be more employable, yet others feel that these requirements simply create hurdles for the poor to participate in the program). Harris asks simply: Why have all this complexity, won’t the simpler framework generate more savings?

Harris believes that significant downsizing is possible stating, “that some of the benefits of complexity in terms of the responsiveness of the system to particular levels of need will be lost.” He supports this with quotes from governmental leaders and specialists—including a quote from Martin Partington, a professor at the University of Bristol, who said “that the overt quest for simplicity . . . masks a more or less covert search for ways to cut (or at least prevent rises in) levels of social security expenditure” (p. 250). Harris is saying that “complexity has posed a significant problem for both claimants and administrators,” and this results in not only errors, but adds to administrative costs and fraud. He acknowledges that some claims are overpaid and others underpaid—factors that he relates to inaccurate or misapplied information—many times due to a lack of integrity in trying to navigate the system (p. 139).

The “inherent complexity of social security,”--the complexity in how a state administers its programs, and the complexity in how the laws govern the system is real. For those who want to understand the challenges in trying to reform the system, Harris’s book will give you a clearer understanding of how difficult these issues really are—here in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries with a social security system.


Beveridge, WH (Lord). (Inter-departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services), Social Insurance and Allied Services (Cmnd 6404, 1942) para. 397.

DeWitt, Larry, Daniel Beland, and Edward D. Berkowitz. 2007. SOCIAL SECURITY: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY. Washington D.C.: Sage Publications.

Dugan, Andrew. April 22, 2014. “Retirement Remains Americans’ Top Financial Worry.” GALLUP.

Epstein, Richard. 1995. SIMPLE RULES FOR A COMPLEX WORLD. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Partington, M. The Juridification of Social Welfare in Britain in G. Teubner (ed.), JURIDICATION OF SOCIAL SPHERES (Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1987), at 429.

Research, Statistics, & Policy Analysis: Social Security Programs Throughout the World. 2014. Social Security Website. [*556]

© Copyright 2014 by the author, Victoria A. Redd.