The emperor’s discarded clothes – and the work programme

I have wondered whether my dislike for payments by results (PbR) stems from the fact that it makes life hard for the voluntary and community sector, that my dislike is a simple response from gut instinct when the political rhetoric of PbR is so compelling, so simple; how could I be against it – no results, no money – the state saves!

I have always been concerned that the way we talk about negating the risk to the Treasury via PbR is so wrong; it focuses on the financial side of the worklessness agenda, and neglects the human aspect. It is not okay if A4E and G4S fail to hit targets ‘because the government doesn’t pay’. It is wrong because it means thousands of unemployed people will have been failed.

I finally concluded that PbR is such a disaster as it is being played out in the work programme while watching the first episode of the Junior Apprentice last week. Parallels with the work programme hit home as I watched it through a different lens to my children sat next to me.

As a task last week, two teams (primes) were given one tonne of discarded clothes (really sorry for this, but in this analogy, the clothes are the long term unemployed).

At the very start, the young people organised the clothes into three piles: easy to sell high end/branded clothes that needed little work, the sellable stuff that with a bit of work could be flogged off cheap at a car boot sale, and a third pile of stuff that was discarded – the young apprentices were never going to make money from the third pile as it needed too much work and wasn’t fit for the current market without significant work and time that they could not afford to give.

You couldn’t possibly argue against this strategy: that the team with the biggest profit wins and that it is pointless wasting time on what won’t make money.

Then, in what turned out to be a tactical error, a team started spending too much money on some clothes, and tried to make them into something they were not. They didn’t have the specialist knowledge to know how to deal with the restyling of some clothes – it was apparent that this would eat into profit. The clothes had potential – they just needed too much work and you needed to know what you were doing. Is my analogy becoming obvious?

The other team skimped on spending in every way they could, if they could get away with it. They didn’t even wash the clothes, but just presented what they had and hoped it would sell.

In another twist the team leaders stuck with the expensive and easy to sell clothes and set another team off to do the dirty work at the car boot sale where they would have to do huge volumes of sales to make a decent income: how many in the supply chain recognise that scenario?

So when the teams presented back to Lord Sugar (the shareholder) it was obvious. The team that won (largest profit) was the one that spent the least and that sorted the clothes most effectively. The biggest individual profit makers in the team where those who took the clothes which were the most easily sellable and their market was obvious. The losers tried too hard; they spent money trying to make something marketable that just couldn’t be without more love and attention. The teams creamed and parked and it was obviously the right tactic when the team with the greatest profit wins – it was obvious to me and obvious to my nine year-old.

So what is my point? Well I have complained about the primes creaming and parking, but in reality what should I expect? The profit is to be made where you do the smallest amount of work to gain an income and that’s what your shareholders expect. The result is some ‘objects’ being discarded at outset, given hardly any attention if any at all. This may be okay with clothes on The Apprentice, but it isn’t acceptable to do this with people, many of who are already vulnerable.

So I will stop blaming the private sector for this practice and focus my energy on the policy – it is the policy that creates the behaviour and it is the policy that is wrong.

Government needs a rethink, a u-turn that I don’t expect given how attached they are to PbR across public services and how difficult it is to argue with the logic of reducing risk and saving money. I firmly believe PbR in the work programme can only fail our most vulnerable, and right now these are the people we can least afford to fail.


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Joe Taylor
Joe Taylor
11 years ago

This is all about the onward march of neo-liberal economic policies. The mainstream media long ago gave up the battle for truth and is just a tool of the powers that be. Good on you for saying it as it is Richard.

M Towey
M Towey
11 years ago

This is a really good analogy and very accurate. As the parent of a long term unemployed young person ‘hard to place’ due to lack of qualifications and physical aptitudes (due to disabilities), the hard to sell pile is where she finds herself and any of these govt funded agencies don’t even really try.

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