The Work Programme is the government’s key way of supporting unemployed and economically inactive people in to work. Launched by the coalition government in June 2011 across Britain, two or three Prime Contractors were established in each region to compete with each other and manage sub-contractors, organisations that deliver training, support and other employment services to unemployed and economically inactive people.
Work programme providers, both Prime and sub-contractors, have received some scathing media coverage from across the political spectrum:
and a number of websites and blogs publicise the negative experiences of individuals, including:
It has even received criticism from within the government, with Defence Minister Nick Harvey describing it as ‘in trouble’:
Any new large-scale programme is likely to have teething problems, and there were some good administrative reasons for the establishment of a single programme rather than the variety of initiatives that were in place previously.
However, the widespread nature of the criticism suggests that there are some significant problems. This has been directed at, and come from, inside government, both prime contractors and sub-contractors, and the unemployed and economically inactive people who access it.
UnemployedNet believes that, as the government is committed to the Work Programme, we need to work together to improve it on behalf of unemployed and economically inactive people. Too often it fails those it is meant to help, with the quality of the user’s experience poor, and the mandatory nature of activity is highly demotivating to the majority who are looking for work. We believe that many of the problems could have been avoided by consulting with those the Programme is meant help, and continuing to consult all those who access the programme to help improve their experience.
Much of the evidence of participants’ experiences is anecdotal as Prime Contractors and their sub-contractors do not release the full range of information they have gathered on this. All of them gather participant satisfaction information. UnemployedNet has submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Work and Pensions, questioning the arrangements DWP requires for user feedback.
The response to this shows that, despite the claim that user feedback is important to them, DWP’s Work Programme contracts do not have minimum scores for user satisfaction, do not require these ratings to be gathered with any frequency and do not set standards for how this needs to be gathered. The only stipulation is that some satisfaction information needs to be collected and fed back.
We believe that user satisfaction should be taken as seriously as performance. This means demanding specific feedback mechanisms, frequencies and scores, with minimum satisfaction ratings and a maximum number of complaints allowable for the provider to keep their contract. There needs to be a clear way for specific user suggestions for improvements to be incorporated, and a guarantee of anonymity for all users.
The Work Programme has some issues in administration, design and delivery. However, as an organisation that stands up for unemployed and economically inactive people UnemployedNet focuses on how to ensure those who use the Programme are properly represented and get the right service.
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.
UnemployedNet users will rate the providers they attend, and we will present the top-rated provider with an award at the end of each year. It is hoped that the award will encourage an emphasis on improved quality of service to all unemployed users, and we will publicise the good work of the winner.
We also believe the government have an important part to play in protecting and promoting the interests of those who use the Work Programme. This role should include:
- Government to make the Work Programme voluntary for all – many unemployed people value the support being offered, but mandatory activity is demotivating and may therefore not support many to gain work. This will also provide real competition in the system. The current government believes that competition improves standards, and providers competing for custom should help to improve quality for users;
- 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.
This government has shown that it can respond to criticism of its work and training provision. It instituted a work experience programme in 2011 which included benefit sanctions (the removal of benefit from people who do not complete the scheme), but then removed the sanctions when public opinion moved against them.
We believe the Work Programme should also be voluntary; competing for participants who are not forced to attend should mean providers giving a higher quality service and having to prove its benefits to prospective participants. This should lead to better outcomes for participants, including higher satisfaction ratings, more jobs and more completed qualifications; happy participants are likely to stay engaged in the programme for longer.
Criticism of the Work Programme has been forthcoming from many directions, including from within the government; Defence Minister Nick Harvey has described it as being ‘in trouble’:
The appointment of many of the same providers as previous government employment programmes has led to some people believing that the programme is likely to be an extension of past methods rather than the genuinely new approach that was promised:
The National Audit Office (NAO) has stated that the government has over-estimated the number of people who are likely to get work through the Programme, and that the terms of contracts are likely to lead to financial difficulties for many. This in turn leads to participants having to drop out of one service, end their valuable relationship with their adviser, and find other provision:
This report also highlights the fact that fewer harder to help people are being referred. The original Department for Work and Pensions target was for 40% of participants to get in to work, but the NAO suggests that 26% is more likely. In the absence of work, providers need to offer a more valuable personal experience to participants (including support to help remove barriers to work) to help them gain from the Programme, and this UnemployedNet campaign supports this.
The London Voluntary Service Council (LVSC) has criticised the lack of involvement of the voluntary sector and charities in the delivery of the Programme. Charities are usually closest to participants:
The evidence above gives suggestions on why the Programme is not providing the right service to participants. One of the issues this campaign is trying to overcome is the lack of representation for participants, and the lack of responsiveness of providers to participants’ needs. This means that participants’ opinions and views are mostly found in blogs and other unofficial sites, including:
The Social Security Advisory Committee’s report on Mandatory Work Activity, released on 1st April 2011, included a review of the evidence. It advised the government not to introduce Mandatory Work Activity, and observed the following:
- “Published evidence is at best ambivalent about the chances of ‘workfare’ type activity improving outcomes for people who are out of work.”
- “We are concerned that mandating an individual to this scheme could also have the opposite effect to the one intended... by limiting the time available for job search, activities such as mandatory work activity can in fact reduce the participants’ chances of finding employment.”
- “This seems to us to signal that being mandated to mandatory work activity is regarded as a punishment…”
According to Channel 4’s Factcheck service, workfare schemes as included in the Work Programme make no difference to employment outcomes. As the journalist and scientist Ben Goldacre has concluded: “Bottom line: it turns out people leave JSA [Jobseeker’s Allowance]at roughly the same rate, whether they’re doing workfare or not.” The secondary aim of removing people from JSA in order to cut the benefit bill is also not being achieved.
The evidence from both inside and outside government demonstrates that the Work Programme is not working in its current form. It does not provide jobs in reasonable numbers, may actually work against participants gaining work by demotivating them, and the experience of participants is often poor. Some have called for the Programme to be ended, but some unemployed and economically inactive people want support, training and work experience, and some value having an adviser with whom they can develop a supportive relationship that helps them gain work.
The most important part of this campaign is for UnemployedNet’s users to sign up to it. To register your support please leave a comment below.
Please note that your first comment to this address will be counted as support for the campaign unless you tell us in the comment that you do not want to be counted in this way. We will release details of the number of people who sign up to the campaign, and aim to build pressure on Work Programme providers and the government through weight of numbers. The more of us that sign up, the more power we can bring to discussions and the more likely it is that we can get these changes made.
We also want you to contribute in the following ways:
- If you are a participant in the Work Programme – give a copy of our campaign to your provider, and register an official complaint with them if they do not implement it fully;
- Rate your Work Programme provider as honestly as possible through registering on UnemployedNet and following the instructions.
The second part of your potential involvement is also important. If you want to become more involved please contact your local MP and ask them to consider campaigning for these changes.
Find your local MP and their email address here:
UnemployedNet’s users are asked to contribute ideas on what other actions we should be taking to make the campaign government policy. Once a reasonable number of you have signed up we will start to work with the government and Work Programme providers to try to influence them directly.
Please let us know what you have done and what you think should be next by leaving comments below.