Everyone in this system knows they are failing those who most need help, says the RSA’s chief executive
Long-term unemployed people are caught in the middle of a Mexican standoff. We should put down the weapons and start working together.
A few weeks ago I broke into my summer staycation to undertake a small piece of consultancy with a local authority. The council had taken an initiative to address high and concentrated unemployment, which persisted despite a relatively buoyant local labour market.
A team involving various local agencies and a couple of external experts had been meeting for some months. It had a robust analysis of the nature of the problem and had agreed some key principles but otherwise had got rather stuck. Hence the phone call that interrupted my afternoon lazing on a sunny Clapham Common.
As I engaged with the council – albeit briefly – the main reason for the impasse became clear. The agencies with a remit for tackling local unemployment can be roughly divided into three. First is Job Centre Plus (JCP), responsible for administering benefits, providing basic employment services and referring claimants to other providers.
Second, are specialist providers of which the most important are the two work programme providers awarded multi-year contracts for the area containing the local authority.
Third is a range of other agencies: the health service, further education colleges, voluntary sector groups, local business associations and the local authority itself. These may not have statutory or primary responsibility for getting people back into work but all have ethical and material reasons to want to reduce local unemployment.
Yet despite this seemingly abundant range of agencies and actions, the people who need help are for the most part being badly let down.
Of course, helping the long-term unemployed back to work is far from easy. As the labour market improves the caseload of claimants becomes more challenging – an ever-higher proportion having both been out of work for many years and suffering from illness or disability, being recipients of employment and support allowance or having needs which would previously have qualified them for incapacity benefit.
Every agency complains legitimately of a lack of money. Local authorities and JCP are trying to cope with austerity measures while work programme providers are facing both tight margins and reputational problems arising from the sector’s overall performance. I know, I sit on the board of a small, second-tier provider.
The proportion of ESA clients on the work programme securing sustainable jobs hovers around one in 10, a figure hardly higher than what would be expected if no support existed. Finally, only a small proportion of all local unemployed sick and disabled people are receiving help from any agency or scheme.
All these challenges ought to be a call for urgent, creative, collaborative action. Instead we have the Mexican standoff. Some JCP offices have good relations with local work programme providers, some less so, but in general JCP managers don’t feel they have either the resources or the local autonomy to make it useful to try to work strategically with other local agencies.
On top of commercial sensitivities and worries about reputation, most work programme providers feel they lack the capacity or the budget to discuss doing anything other than providing a very basic and largely unsuccessful service. Meanwhile, other agencies see employment as someone else’s problem and view private sector providers with deep suspicion.
One consequence is that the system is failing to achieve what is surely its most basic requirement: to focus on the needs of the client. I was told, for example, that when claimants come back to JCP having not secured a job through the work programme, they generally arrive empty handed. Often there is no record of what they have learned or experienced on the programme, no CV, and nothing to suggest, even if they haven’t landed a job, that they have at least made some progress.
Everyone in this system knows they are failing those who most need help. Reading the research, especially an excellent recent report by the thinktank Inclusion, we also have a pretty good idea of what might actually work.
Of course, we need reform of the policy framework, including (as the RSA has advocated) devolving skills and employment functions and budgets to well-run city regions. But future reforms won’t help today’s unemployed.
If all the agencies operating locally could work better together, pooling data, insight, skills, resources and networks, it would be possible to produce step change in both the quality of support and the outcomes. Isn’t it about time to end the standoff?
Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA