UnemployedNet has submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request on the Work Programme to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to try to establish how well it supports and meets the needs of unemployed people.
One of the principles which led to the establishment of UnemployedNet was that benefit claimants, particularly workless people, are not included properly in the consultation and surveying that goes in to making new services and policies, and that this is one of the main reasons why those services and policies are so often either unfitting to their needs or apparent punishments for the simple crime of being unemployed.
Gathering the views of those who will be most affected by services is a key part of developing them, but unemployed people and other benefit claimants are often seen as simple recipients rather than participants and partners, despite understanding their needs and the challenges of unemployment better than anyone else.
Other communities would not accept this treatment, and creating a sense of community making this impossible is a key aim of UnemployedNet.
The FoI response is reproduced in full below, but the key points are:
· While the DWP requires Work Programme prime contractors to measure it there are no minimum standards for participant satisfaction;
· Only informal satisfaction information is provided by Work Programme prime providers to the DWP, and the DWP does not check satisfaction levels or ratings with participants at either prime contractor or sub-contractor level;
· DWP has no direct involvement in speaking to participants to make sure they are receiving the right service. It has commissioned an evaluation of the Work Programme, to report in 2014, but currently no information is available on what will be asked or even if there will be direct participant interviewing or surveying.
Part of the FoI request was rejected, with the DWP suggesting that sharing specific information on participant satisfaction provided to them by prime contractors would violate section 43 of the FoI Act, potentially damaging the commercial interests of Work Programme providers.
The response also stated that there was no public interest in disclosing this additional information, a view that UnemployedNet disputes. It could only be considered true if it is believed that the ability to deliver the Work Programme would be seriously compromised by the public knowing what your customers think of you, and that these customers’ rights were less important.
Both of these cases being true is highly unlikely in our opinion. If the information is released the only way in which the provider’s commercial interests would be compromised is if its performance was extremely low; in this case wouldn’t the public interest of the thousands of participants in the Work Programme outweigh those commercial interests?
But the key issue remains the same; unemployed people are not shown the respect they deserve, and that other communities take for granted. If you want to see what any organisation takes seriously, look at what its contracts demand. The DWP holds contracts signed by each Work Programme provider and demands that each provides detailed specific information on how many individuals they have supported in to work, how many have started with them and other performance information.
So important are these performance elements that contracts require that DWP inspectors are given access to check the evidence that they have been achieved, and set out what will be done if there is an underperformance problem.
The contracts do not require any specific information on the satisfaction levels of participants though, despite those people being providers’ only customers. If a contract includes a requirement to provide something but does not specify how much of that thing is required or how often, it is as if the thing isn’t really there.
A few months ago UnemployedNet published a blog titled ‘Ask Us’. This gives examples of government proposals and policies with unemployed people and other benefit claimants at their heart which have not been sufficiently consulted on. We believe that there is a pattern in the way UK governments (not just the current one) think about and treat unemployed people which can be traced to a lack of respect for them and a lack of influence wielded by them.
This is why we started UnemployedNet; other groups with a specific relationship to the state and reliance on it, like pensioners, disabled people and health service users, have bodies that represent them and hold the government to account on their behalf. Unemployed people do not.
This makes unemployed claimants easy to ignore, and, with opinions expressed in the UK media being so overwhelmingly negative and no organisation co-ordinating a response, governments and service providers are not being pushed to change their lack of engagement or attitudes.
UnemployedNet is pledged to change this. We have already started a campaign on the Work Programme, which concentrates on making it voluntary and improving consultation of customers. The campaign includes:
‘All Work Programme Prime Contractors should be required to work to improve their services to and relationships with their users. This should include:
· Commissioning an independent annual evaluation of user satisfaction (including samples of each sub-contractor’s users);
· Providing a full feedback system, with anonymity for all users, and a mechanism for implementing their suggestions for improvements;
· Requiring each sub-contractor to achieve a minimum score of 3 stars on UnemployedNet’s ratings system. If sub-contractors do not achieve this score recovery measures should be employed, including more regular reporting to DWP and providing more of the personal support that users say they want;
· Commissioning UnemployedNet to convene focus groups of their users to provide qualitative feedback on improvements to the services;
· Government to include minimum standards for user feedback in to all of its Work Programme prime contracts as set out above, with payment withheld if the provider does not meet these standards.’
The response to our Freedom of Information request shows how important it is that this campaign is taken up by unemployed people, and implemented by their support providers and the government as well as other stakeholders. It also shows that a wider change in thinking is needed at all levels to start to see unemployed people as valuable (if unfortunate) citizens and customers.
The Department for Work and Pensions response (reproduced in full):
1) Are Prime and/or sub-Contractors required to collect information from all of those individuals who access their provision on the individuals’ satisfaction with the service they receive and/or to gather suggestions on how to improve it?
The Department requires Work Programme prime providers to measure participant experience/satisfaction of the provision. The subcontractor feedback arrangements are at the discretion of their prime provider.
2) What information is required – specific questions asked, format (written forms, online, face-to-face interviews etc) – and when and how often is it requested?
The Department does not specify the content, format or frequency of provider satisfaction surveys.
3) What proportion of service users provide this information?
The Department does not hold this information as providers have discretion to determine the proportion of service users to select.
4) Is this information available in aggregate? Is it reported to DWP as part of each Contractor’s contract or otherwise?
Providers are asked to share satisfaction/feedback findings with the Department at monthly reviews with providers. This information is not aggregated across all Work Programme providers.
5) Do your contracts with providers/Primes/sub-contractors require them to achieve minimum average satisfaction scores from users (if so, what are these minimum scores?)? Do the contracts require them to implement users’ suggestions/recommendations for improvements to the services?
The Department does not set minimum average satisfaction scores. The information gathered is used by providers to address any areas for improvement.
6) Does DWP do any of its own user satisfaction surveying of Work Programme service users? If so, please send information on what you do in this area and any information you have gathered.
The Department has commissioned an independent evaluation of the Work Programme. The evaluation will compare the experiences of all claimant groups who access the programme. The results will be available in 2014 and published in an official evaluation report under the DWP Research Report series available on the DWP website: http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/rrs-index.asp.
The following information has been withheld under Section 43:
“Please send answers to these questions and any user satisfaction and/or engagement information reported to you by Prime or sub-Contractors.”
“I would like contractors’ reports to DWP as you receive them, including aggregated information from each of these, so please provide this to me labelled with the name of the Prime Contractor and also broken down by region if you have this information.”
Section 43 of the FOI Act relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf. I consider that the exemption applies because it is intended to protect the ability of the Department to obtain goods or services on the best possible commercial terms and to protect the legitimate commercial interests of our suppliers. I maintain that the information you seek falls into this category.
As required by the Act in respect of the Section 43 exemption, I have also considered whether the balance of the public interest comes down in favour of not complying with your request. I consider that there is no overarching public interest argument in favour of releasing this information for the following reasons:
The release of the information as requested could potentially damage the commercial interests of organisations delivering the Work Programme and inhibit or limit the ability of the Department to obtain the best services to help people make the transition into work.
If you have any queries about this letter please contact me quoting the reference number above.
Work Programmes Division’