It’s something of an understatement to say that the Work Programme has attracted its share of criticism. Progress in harnessing a network of private and voluntary sector providers to help the UK’s unemployed back into work has been somewhat sluggish. We’ve been following its development for some time, and in our response to DWP’s consultation on its commissioning strategy, we offer advice on how we believe it could achieve better outcomes in future.

The government’s recently announced help-to-work scheme aims to impose tougher measures on those who are not in employment after two years in the Work Programme. But why spend time and money implementing a new system, designed to catch those that the Work Programme spews back out, before making improvements to the existing one?

The main problem with the current system is that it fails to make use of extensive local and specialist expertise in  helping people back into work—precisely where the most potential lies. We’ve identified a number of steps that could be taken to support the inclusion of smaller providers, without DWP having to lose its top-level strategic oversight. So here are my top three, taken from our wider set of recommendations.

Focussing on the journey to employment

The current system recognises three kinds of people: those that aren’t in work, those that have made it into work (through job outcome payments),  and those that are in work and likely to stay there for a decent amount of time (through sustainment payments). The problem is it misses the complex journey to employment that many Work Programme customers need to navigate. Specialist providers often help harder to reach individuals get closer to—but not quite all the way—into employment, which is a critical part of the process. So, until the Work Programme recognises these intermediate steps, and offers some financial reward for achieving them, prime providers have no real incentive to make use of the specialists in their supply chain. NPC’s work on the Journey to EmploymenT (JET) Framework and Theory of change, provide some insight into how this could be achieved.

Clearer definitions of who providers are helping – and measuring performance accordingly

The Work Programme currently defines people based on the type of benefit they receive (Jobseekers Allowance claimants aged 25 and over, for example). This creates fairly broad categories, making it difficult to assess how effective specialist providers are in helping particular groups into employment. For example, if performance isn’t measured against success in getting ex-offenders back into work, then the contribution of organisations providing expertise in this particular area is downplayed. As a result, cash-strapped prime providers, with their eyes on the financial reward,  are tempted to deal with customers directly, instead of passing them onto a specialist. With the incentives as they are, customers may not get the best support, increasing the chances that they will remain unemployed.

Taking a step back from subcontracting and payment by results

Payment by results creates an extremely harsh environment for smaller providers who do not have the working capital required to work towards payments that might be a long way off, or that might not come at all. Similarly, the sub-contracting mechanism (by which the government commissions a few ‘prime’ providers, who are responsible for creating and managing a ‘supply chain’ of smaller providers) creates a disconnect between commissioners and specialist providers on the ground. Particularly in the case of those that are the hardest-to-help, who are the furthest from employment and have a host of specific obstacles to deal with on the way, DWP should consider whether the current mechanisms are appropriate. A more effective solution might be to place this group in a system outside current mechanisms,  hiring good providers with strong track records to help them. Devolving responsibility for this, perhaps to the level of Local Enterprise Partnerships, would leave DWP free to oversee the system, whilst putting the hardest-to-help in the hands of those best qualified to help them on their journey to employment.

The recent consultation does show positive signs that DWP are open to thinking about these sorts of ideas, and we hope that they’ll be taken forward – before too much effort is spent on thinking about what to do after the Work Programme has failed.

Footer