UnemployedNet has responded to the government's consultation on the next generation of work programmes.
Gathering workless people's opinions through Facebook, the Huffington Post and direct emails, we pushed the case for a fairer deal for the unemployed.
The response recommended:
- treating unemployed people as customers, with all the respect that customers are given by businesses. Customers shouldn't be forced to engage, they should be fought for with offers of high quality support that takes ful account of what they want;
- ensuring that unemployed people are consulted properly before each change to their services, and that those opinions are listened to and incorporated into services;
- measuring unemployed people's satisfaction with services like the Work Programme and have minimum contractual levels for these. Providers would be fined part of their payments if they did not achieve these standards;
- getting more smaller organisations, including charities and community organisations, involved in delivering services, as they are often better at supporting people and representing their concerns to the government;
- breaking up current huge government employment contracts into smaller lots to get more diversity of providers into the system and allow more smaller organisations to lead contracts;
- preventing providers from recommending sanctions; these are too damaging to unemployed people, many providers are not skilled at judging when it is appropriate to apply them, and apply them more often than jobcentres;
- making all programmes for the unemployed voluntary as a way of lifting standards and showing much-needed respect to the workless.
The UnemployedNet document was submitted on Friday, and the Department for Work and Pensions has promised to respond.
We will bring you this news as soon as we have it.
Here is the response in full:
Response to Consultation
Rather than fit this response into the questions posed in the consultation document, it will make a number of cross-cutting points which apply to the spirit of the exercise and information required.
Many of the failures of the Work Programme and other commissioned provision lie outside the scope of this consultation. However, we believe that commissioning plays a part in the problems experienced, particularly:
1) Domination of large private-sector providers – apart from one consortium of third-sector providers and one college-lead scheme, large private-sector providers are dominate Work Programme delivery. The third sector has been marginalised to the second-tier, where many have not received any referrals, leading to some believing that they have been used as ‘bid-candy’ to give a misleading impression of community involvement. The care for specific vulnerable groups associated with the best of the voluntary sector has been lost, and the services received from the biggest private-sector companies are not seen by users as supportive and person-centred;
2) Related to the above, the arrangement of provision into large contract packages has worked against the involvement of third sector and smaller community organisations, as well as some private-sector specialists. It may have cut administration costs but the loss of their involvement has not been a price worth paying for unemployed people, who need the supportive delivery methods and range of specialist expertise of smaller providers. Jobless people sometimes associate larger private sector providers with an emphasis on profits at the expense of people, and are concerned that they do not provide balance by ensuring valid criticisms of the system are fed through to decision makers in government and civil service;
3) Lack of appropriate consultation of unemployed people – it is understood that DWP conducts reviews and evaluations of its programmes, including interviewing unemployed people. However, respondents to our call for information believed their views were not being heard, and other methods of information gathering need to be considered;
4) DWP states that in commissioning, “performance across outcomes and claimant groups, value-for-money and the ability to operate a sound control environment have to be our primary objectives.” We would like to add one vital primary objective to this list: customer service quality;
5) Unemployed respondents have made the point that work and jobseekers’ services need to be joined up and understood together. Understanding needs to be given by all providers to unemployed people’s situations; very few choose unemployment, and in some areas of the UK more than 50 people chase each vacancy;
6) Unemployed people who responded to our call for information on their experiences were often angry at the treatment they have had at the hands of those organisations that are supposed to support them into work. Sanctions are particularly contentious currently, with one respondent saying the Work Programme was “unfairly set up to make people fail on purpose”, with sanctions now being seen as a target of providers. There has been a rise in the removal of benefits recently, and empowering or enabling providers to apply sanctions at their current high levels is a dereliction for an organisation that claims to exist “to lift people out of poverty”, as the DWP does. Sanctions are often a disproportionate punishment, particularly recently, and a recently-established Tumblr account has recently publicised some of the less reasonable justifications for their application. The government has spoken of its desire to make unemployment more like work, through measures including mandatory full-time jobsearch, but few jobs would remove income for weeks from those employees who missed a single meeting. Again, a funded and empowered third sector and more, smaller contracts would help to balance this; community organisations with the interests of their users at heart would be less likely to apply draconian policy without feeding back information on the suffering caused.
At UnemployedNet we believe that some simple and constructive changes would help ensure that the key stakeholders in DWP services, its workless customers, are properly supported and empowered to make the most of opportunities.
1) Consultation on any strategy, reforms, policy or other service change should include unemployment intermediaries, including UnemployedNet, as part of the process. The development of this group, along with others, has helped to bring a level of organisation to the area, and this should be recognised alongside existing one-to-one consultation of unemployed people. This process would be similar to those used for the third sector with NCVO and others and support providers and the ERSA, ensuring that unemployed representative groups are always explicitly sought out to provide responses. When jobseekers are consulted and evaluated by their providers they sometimes keep their real opinions hidden, believing that criticisms may lead to problems or even sanctions. Some jobseekers who responded to our call for information on this consultation declined to provide any opinions in case they got back to providers, and those working on behalf of the government and providers have far greater difficulties. This fits within the consultation’s promotion of ‘working in partnership’ as being of key importance;
2) Recognise the key DWP clients, unemployed people, as customers, with all the high service standards, right to respect and central place in policymaking that that entails. This should be enshrined in commissioning. ‘Customers’ are not forced to use services, and the institution of this change should bring with it a change to all employment support provision, including the Work Programme, being made voluntary. We believe that the resultant added competition among providers, and the added respect given to, and felt by, jobseekers, is likely to drive up standards and outcomes, a better model for all to follow;
3) Return to commissioning smaller packages that third sector and smaller specialist private sector providers can realistically bid for, helping return a community focus to DWP delivery. Community-based providers are not being used often by prime contractors within the Work Programme, and the need for low-cost provision means the big package commissioning model is not likely to lead to any increase in second-tier referrals in the future. There are ways for smaller packages to be prioritised simply, either through devolving more commissioning to jobcentres or to local authorities, which understand their areas and the high-quality, committed providers based in them;
4) Introduce a new prime objective on service quality to customers. The centrality of the customer experience needs to be asserted, and measured through minimum satisfaction ratings (administered by independent organisations with feedback given anonymously). These ratings should be published in league tables, minimum ratings should be contractual, and penalties applied to companies that do not achieve these ratings. UnemployedNet can advise on how to improve these ratings, including using person-centred support methods, setting up user councils within each provider and implementing their suggestions for improvements, running anonymous complaints procedures that are taken seriously, and co-operating fully with users in setting action plans and other support methods;
5) The DWP needs to ensure work always pays – an avowed aim of the current government – not through deteriorating benefit conditions and an ever-harsher regime of mandatory activity, but through ensuring entry-level and low-paid work is a viable financial option. Living wages need to be paid for work, particularly for those leaving unemployment as they are less likely to have built a cushion of savings before entry, while providers need to understand that it is unreasonable to expect a claimant to take any job, even one that reduces their already-meagre income. DWP should use its influence in this area to try to lobby for change while ensuring all contracted providers, as well as jobcentres, take a more understanding view of appropriate work.
Fraud is a tiny part of the benefits system, and the increasingly harsh treatment unemployed people believe they are getting, as well as the increasing number of sanctions being handed out, are unnecessary and work against unemployed people’s ability to find work. A climate of fear in which jobless people live in constant fear of having their benefits withdrawn, often for the most spurious reasons, is no preparation for trying to find a job.
A move towards a more person-centred provider regime, in which the customer plays an integral part in their own journey back to work, is empowering and builds confidence, key to success in the job market.
It is also likely to improve morale among provider (and jobcentre) staff, many of whom are unlikely to be happy applying so many sanctions, often to vulnerable people, as part of their daily routine.
Commissioning can play a vital part in this change, and the enactment of the recommendations above is likely to make improvements both in customers’ experiences and their job outcomes.
UnemployedNet is an online support and representation organisation for workless people. Founded in 2012 with the aim of becoming ‘the homepage for the unemployed’, it provides web-based practical support with jobseeking, benefits, living on a low income, and functional jobsearch tools. We run a number of campaigns, one of which is to make the Work Programme voluntary.