By Maeve McGoldrick
The Work Programme receives more media interest than any previous employment support programme Community Links has ever delivered. Last week’s performance results were headline news. The fact that a third of people on the Work Programme found work (321,000 people) was a success for the industry, and for government. Especially since this was a 55% increase on the performance from six months before.
Delivery organisations that are sub-contracting are not allowed to speak publicly about their own performance level figures due to a gagging clause in the contracts, but as one of these organisations we can say that generally we are confident in our results in relation to the performance expected of us by government.
However, despite it being early days, the reality is that the are a number of people who still haven’t been supported into employment who are on this programme, and may soon be leaving it to move on to yet another programme. This could be their third or fourth move on a journey that, after at the very least three years, will no doubt feel like it’s going nowhere. They may end up thinking that they’re simply unemployable. The fact that around 70% of people don’t succeed on the Work Programme could be down to a wide range of factors: there may not be suitable, local jobs available, or they may have almost insurmountable barriers to work that need addressing before employment can even be an option for them. We still don’t know enough about why people have not been successful on the Work Programme and without proper evaluation of why this is so, government will not be able to provide effective support for them.
For a programme that is designed to drive up performance under a tough payment by results model we should be asking ourselves, is this happening? What is different from this programme than any of the previous programmes in relation to performance levels?
What we can confidently say is different is that the Treasury is saving money from this programme. They only pay out if they get results, so they are not funding organisations to support people unless they move into work and stay there for six months. The savings for 2011-12 have already been clawed back by the Treasury. It would be nice to know what has been done with that.
Digging a bit deeper into the performance figures released last week, young people are faring well under the Work Programme. Almost half of all the young people on the programme for up to two years have found work and providers are gaining momentum on their speed of moving people into work. However, ESA customers, who are new to work activity requirements and are associated with having complex support needs, don’t seem to be benefiting so much from the programme that was once painted as the ‘silver bullet’ of employment support.
Although Work Programme performance is good and reaches government’s expectations, the reality is that it hasn’t yet met all of its service user’s expectations. We are exploring why this is the case through our programme of research into the personalisation of employment support. We are identifying what the needs of more complex customers are, and what is needed to support them. These findings may come with cost implications, or at very least the reallocation of funding. We saw that performance was low for ESA customers, but early measures indicated that the longer an ESA customer is on the programme the closer they move to the labour market. The more support a person needs, the more intensive the service should be.
There’s a risk that the financial performance of the Work Programme could override the importance of serving all its customers’ needs and how well it performs on this. If we need to tweak the programme design, or allocate finances to better match the level of intensive support required, we should not hold back from doing that. This is what government should be judged on as much as organisations are judged on their ability to deliver what government has designed.
No doubt the Work Programme will remain headline news and a political hot potato. But we hope that performance figures ultimately serve a more worthwhile purpose of reforms that aid advancement and excellence in the employment support service sector. As local people who are unemployed keep telling us, the benefits system just makes them feel like a statistic, not a person. Let’s not run the risk of doing that when it comes to performance.