A view on the Work Programme

I have spent a lot of time in the last two weeks looking at aspects of the Work Programme with people from the voluntary and community sector (VCS), social enterprises, prime contractors and even been part of meetings with the minister and shadow minister responsible. The question is, what have I learned?

I think the Work Programme and how it is portrayed by the government and the opposition is consistent with what is happening across the policy arena at present and shows a consistency in the government’s approach and attitude which I will attempt to illustrate below:

1. The aims of the policy cannot be faulted: you will have to go a long way to find people who truly believe getting people back into work is a bad idea. The challenge is agreeing the best way to do it.

2. A lack of accountability: within government there is a willingness, even enthusiasm, to say ‘it’s nothing to do with us’. At the NCVO Special Interest Group (SIG), Chris Grayling said: ‘Not wishing to rubbish what you are doing here, but you shouldn’t be bringing these issues to me, you should be discussing them with the primes.’ The trouble is, he is probably right given the nature of the contracts they have created, but I do find it strange that government doesn’t see it as its role to hear issues about one of the biggest ever government contracts in this arena? As the delayed National Audit Office report asks, has DWP ‘…introduced mechanisms to manage the Work Programme and the ongoing risks to its effective delivery?’

3. A lack of willingness to learn from the past: it is interesting that in the VCS we are constantly told to evidence what we do and prove what we do works yet the government seems willing to embark on huge schemes with little supportive evidence – and when there is some they ignore it on clearly political grounds – take the Future Jobs Fund, for just one small example.

4. A lack of openness and transparency: despite the rhetoric we still have little evidence of the impact of the Work Programme in its early days. I keep being told it is working – ‘we are about where we expected to be’ is the message from the primes and government. But that’s not consistent with the providers I speak to – please can we have some data to get to grips early with issues and know where we need to put more effort in.

5. Hear no evil see no evil: apparently, as nobody has complained using the Merlin Standard there is nothing wrong. Well that’s what the minister says anyway. It seems that anyone who has any complaints was not a good enough negotiator, was rubbish at writing business plans or clearly not delivering the right services, otherwise they would have a good contract – wouldn’t they?

6. Financial clout is paramount: apparently the primes were all chosen because of their capital base. Great, clearly this is important in a culture of payment by results and will condemn the VCS to years of picking up the scraps, but begs the question as to why you wouldn’t put ‘ability to get people back into work’ at the top of a list when devising a programme about, well, getting people back into work?

7. An over-exaggeration of the role of the VCS and social enterprise: at a select committee recently the prime minister (as opposed to essentially the Primes Minister in DWP) said ‘…over 50% of the Work Programme is being delivered by small voluntary and community groups…’. Not even the most generous interpretation of the facts could conceive that to be true, but even the other figures thrown around seem unrealistic to most. There are a couple of big players in there – in parts of Lancashire about 90% of the programme is delivered by a social enterprise – this distorts the wider picture in the northwest, the reality, even for those that DWP say are in the supply chain is that little or no business has come their way.

8. VCS is scared to speak out: I have multiple examples now of where groups feel they have been mistreated and misled. At the moment I struggle to find one to speak out in public about their experience. The chances of them using Merlin or going to the media are non-existent at the moment as they do not want to burn bridges. I predict that it will take a big player going to the wall – a prime or a big provider in the supply chain – before we see people willing to go public.

9. A lack of willingness to rethink anything: at the NCVO SIG it seemed to me that the minister was not keen to rethink anything. Even when presented with a compelling case of changing payment profiles slightly, with no greater spend required, he was unwilling to recognise the issue or consider addressing it.

10. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone: I fear that like in many other arenas, when government and primes realise that they need some of the smaller niche services provided by voluntary organisations in particular, they will have gone to the wall. Many services are currently being delivered on the back of reserves and dwindling grant programmes, all of which will be gone by the time everyone shows the necessary understanding of the overall environment required to get people who are a long way from the labour market back into work.

11. Other policy/implementation failures are making it worse: in terms of this area everyone I have spoken to agrees that failings with the work capability assessment is causing issues with the through flow and diversity of clients to make the programme viable. In fact this can scupper the best written business plan in the world so ministers should be a bit careful when throwing the blame around please! Add to that the lack of jobs and any clear strategy to rectify this and the situation is compounded for those whose financial future will be dependent on significant outcome payments in the medium term.

12. If you are not in there now, it will be difficult to get in later: many organisations are reliant on the attachment fee at present and their long-term sustainability will be driven by outcome payments in the coming years. If it all falls into place it should be ok for them (big emphasis on ‘should’). If you come into the market too late you will become a victim of the tapering out of attachment payments and the rewards for job sustainability may be too far into the future for you to survive or deal with the cash flow.

13. There is a lack of clarity on some key issues and feigned surprise when they are raised: Mr Grayling was surprised to hear that contract terms were being passed on by the primes with a ‘DWP insist’ message: apparently DWP insist on no aspect of their contract with the primes being passed down – if only you could have told us when we were incompetently negotiating! In addition to this I would love to see a definitive briefing on ESF in the Work Programme and implications for delivery organisations.

14. We are going to have to get used to new partnerships/new arrangements: given the lack of government’s willingness to intervene, we (the VCS) will have to learn to start building relationships and partnerships where we may have previously had reservations. We will need to find common cause with those in the supply chain – and even the primes – in order to influence policy and get the improvements we need.

15. No real alternative: the size and scale of the change means there are very few ‘alternatives’: it seems to leave opposition thinkers in a position of tinkering and finger pointing rather than presenting an alternative vision. The idea of whole scale change would presumably send the primes running to the hills – and isn’t the current situation just a manifestation of what the last government started anyway?

16. There are inherent policy contradictions: my favourite in the Work Programme is the contradiction with the personalisation and choice agenda. Just how well does that fit with a process of random allocation and compulsion? You can choose your doctor, where you have your hospital treatment. But when it comes to which provider will help you get back into work, you will do as the computer says – however good a fit one may be to your needs.

17. Have we increased costs and bureaucracy?: the coalition is committed to reducing bureaucracy and I wonder if this is achievable in the Work Programme. I would be interested to see how much money is spent on directly helping individuals back into work as opposed to paying for the infrastructure around it. When a prime contracts out 100% some VCS specialists could be third or even fourth in the chain from money leaving DWP with everyone taking their slice of the cake as it comes down the chain.

I could go on. I could almost use the same blog to look at the health changes, or wider economic policy: a government that does not seem to want to govern and is happy to let the market decide will always prove a challenge for those of us trying to influence policy. But I will sign off with one idea where we could find common cause with the primes and where we could bring more VCS groups into the market.

If we could suspend random allocation for people who volunteer into the Work Programme and allow small groups to support clients to join up with a prime of their choice, we could create new partnerships. If the VCS group can then continue to support clients in the process and share the rewards at the end we may have a system that supports people effectively, sustains small voluntary groups and most importantly of all, helps people who need it into sustainable employment. We can all sign up to do that, can’t we?


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