Today the government launched its new Work Programme. Described by Employment minister, Chris Grayling, as ‘revolutionary’ the new scheme will sweep away the previous collection of programmes and focus all welfare-to-work under one banner. Contractors, all large, mostly private contractors will get chunky cash rewards for their back-to-work services on a payment-by-results basis – the results being that a million people will hopefully move from welfare to sustainable employment in the next two years.
Interestingly, the BBC reports that: “The contracts are run not only on a payment-by-results basis but also on what’s called the black box approach. This means government won’t tell suppliers what kind of support they need to give, promising not to interfere in the running of schemes.”
This may or may not be a good thing. It’s certainly good if it means that advisers will be able to concentrate on helping people get jobs rather than following impractically bureaucratic DWP procedures. It’s less good it if also means that providers will be able to chose to prioritise support for those unemployed people who need the least support to find work (and thereby generate a results based payment) over those who need a lot of support to be ready to enter (or re-enter) the job market.
Either way, though, I feel that there’s a strong possibility that the Work Programme actually doesn’t go far enough in terms of promoting competition in the back-to-work market. A key principle of Andrew Lansley’s, admittedly controversial, NHS reforms is the principle of “no decisions about me without me”. A important element of that thinking is the move towards increasing personalisation of health services – following on from similar developments in social care.
While the actual allocation of personal budgets is only one aspect of the move towards personalised services, it’s something that could usefully be considered in the field of back-to-work provision. What if people who had been unemployed for a period of six months or more were allocated a personal budget to spend on the support that they felt would help them get back into work? That would force back-to-work providers to compete for business by giving unemployed people a clear explanation of how they would benefit from their service, and ultimately to tailor that service to the needs of their customers. Some people might chose to use a package of different services from a range of providers.
Back-to-work personal budgets would also allow smaller organisations – including many social enterprises – a clearer route into the market based on their understanding of how to support unemployed people in their particular area or with particular needs. This wouldn’t prevent a significant percentage of the payments organisations received being based on the outcomes achieved once people had chosen to use their services.
It’s too soon to say what the Work Programme will achieve but, in its present form, the danger is that it will, possibly inadvertently, end up being a radical scheme for empowering large outsourcing companies. The real challenge is to put some power in the hands of people who use services. This is clearly an approach that present government is committed to in other policy areas. While there may be a minority of unemployed people who just aren’t interested in getting into work, the vast majority are desperate to do so. Creating a personalised system – maybe, initially as a pilot scheme – would be a good way of the government giving unemployed people the power to transform their own lives and, in doing so, treating them with the same level of respect accorded to other systems. Ultimately, it might even save money.