Not long ago, I wrote a blog post that attempted to dig a little deeper into the issues surrounding the Work Programme. This was about the time of the G4S Olympics debacle and there was a great deal of debate about the ability (or otherwise) of the private sector in successfully delivering public sector contracts, most notably employment services for the long-term unemployed. There were also an increasing number of accounts emerging of the supposedly poor success rates that some providers had achieved in getting their clients back into work.
In looking for the root causes of these difficulties, I wanted to get beyond the simplistic binary that often comes to characterise conversations about the Work Programme: that private sector involvement is bad because it only has profit at heart, whereas public sector and third sector provision is good since it truly cares about addressing the full needs of the long-term unemployed, whatever the cost. Although there are certainly cases of greed, manipulation and negligence in the private sector, on the whole this is an unhelpful generalisation and one that diverts our attention from addressing the real challenges of implementing the Work Programme effectively.
My argument was that the major cracks in this once promising employment initiative are not really caused by who is providing the service but rather by the fundamentally flawed nature of the contract arrangements and the subsequent resource constraints in which employment service providers, whether public, private or voluntary, now have to operate by.
Last week at the RSA’s seminar on employability, we had a chance to reflect further on the nature of the Work Programme and the notable barriers stopping it from achieving its potential. The central focus of the debate was about whether employment providers could provide training, mentoring, and other services which are better informed by an holistic understanding of their clients’ needs and personal circumstances.
We heard from a panel of speakers, including Jo Casebourne (Nesta), Dave Simmonds (CESI), Kirsty McHugh (ERSA) and John Blackmore (Action Acton), as well as from a set of experienced attendees, among them government department reps, academics and those delivering services on the ground, either as prime contractors or subcontractors.
Here are some of the key points emerging from our discussions:
Slim margins hinder innovation – Work Programme providers and other employment services often cannot spare the resources to pay for R&D. Flawed contractual arrangements that demand unachievable levels of ‘success rates’ at knock-down prices mean that the profit margins of some organisations involved in the Programme are wafer thin, if not entirely non-existent. Thin profit margins inevitably result in little reinvestment in improving the nature of training and other services.
Local employers need to be co-opted into Work Programme efforts – One of our participants spoke of the need to stimulate demand for employees at a micro level, not just a macro level. Work Programme providers need to work more closely with employers of all sizes in their area and ask them to take on the long-term unemployed and help them grow as workers. This is a tall order for some employers, particularly small business owners. Yet their engagement and patience is an integral part of not just helping people into work but also making sure they are able to stay in work, climb from part-time to full-time work, and break the all too common ‘no pay, low pay’ cycle.
Success is limited without strong local partnerships – Individual organisations can do a great deal to improve the employment prospects of their clients, but only so much can be achieved alone. ‘Collective’ barriers such as poor transport, a lack of affordable housing and ineffective health services can only be addressed when organisations work together in unison. One representative from a Work Programme provider spoke of the frustration at being unable to help people find work in another part of a city because of poor transport links. While Local Enterprise Partnerships are designed to overcome these hurdles and produce collective responses to local economic needs, it is widely agreed that they do not wield enough power or money to take effective action (whereas, for all their faults, many Regional Development Agencies did).
Information sharing eases the flow of clients through the supply-chain – Many attendees reported difficulties of working with others in their supply-chain. For instance, due to a lack of dialogue and information sharing, much of the rich understanding of clients’ needs and life histories is lost when they are referred to different services. This is a critical issue since a great deal of the effort spent in supporting the long-term unemployed is on trying to identify what those barriers are, not just treating them. Another problem encountered in the supply chain is that of bad ‘sequencing’, whereby providers find themselves ‘giving the right help in the wrong order’, for example helping someone with CV writing when another service should first be supporting them with basic health and hygiene advice.
Claimants only make up half the picture –Dave Simmonds, CEO of CESI, highlighted that current approaches to addressing long-term unemployment fail to support those who do not claim benefits. Some estimates suggest that this group accounts for half of the total number of the long-term unemployed (meaning the real figure is in the region of some 2 million people). Future efforts in this area should begin to recognise and help this hidden group.
Frontline staff can make or break Work Programme success rates – The effectiveness of services in supporting clients ultimately rests with the quality of frontline staff and their ability to translate into practice the ideas and processes that come from above. In Work Programme provider centres, there are often one or two key workers who have high personal success rates and who have an excellent understanding of what works in helping clients to find meaningful work. Providers should seek to amplify the effects of the most promising staff and work to retrain and encourage those who are less effective.
Competition over contracts makes dissemination of best-practice difficult – The competitive nature of the Work Programme means that providers are keen to keep any successful innovations to themselves, whether that be in new training techniques or better models for tracking and analysing data on their clients. While this is understandable, it also means that the potential impact of new and successful approaches are never fully realised, and that those methods already proven to be ineffective continue to be replicated time and again.
Web 2.0 enables services to make better use of people’s support networks – Tackling long-term unemployment is as much about connecting people with the right role models and information channels as it is about creating new jobs and developing people’s skills and attitudes. New websites and apps, enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, are helping people to both forge new connections with others and to make better use of existing ones. Backr, for instance, allows young people to link up and talk with adult employees who are currently working in professions that appeal to them. Another website is FLiP, which enables people to collect feedback on their strengths and qualities from others in their online networks. The task for Work Programme providers is to think imaginatively about how they can more effectively embed these new tools within their existing operations.