Monday, 11 February 2013

Unleashing Welfare To Work

It is a given that we always have, and will continue to spend billions on welfare-to-work schemes in the UK, so I'm going to talk from the premise that money IS going to be spent. My political leanings and fiscal conservatism largely stem from that fact that, I believe we're spending it wrong, we're funding the wrong things, in the wrong way and on the wrong priorities and burdening those that spend the taxpayer's largess on nonsensical guff. Despite what the next paragraph may seem, it isn't an attempt at self-aggrandisement. It's more an expression of my frustration at my government and the establishment's inability to see the forest for the trees.

I have a long history in what has become an industry in its own right, starting out in 2000; as a claimant, slotting into several of many client groups that defined my "distance from the job market", I bridged the distance fairly quickly - in a couple of months - partly due to efforts of those driven by profits, some of them actually well-meaning, but mainly due to my own drive, determination and perseverance. My journey has never been a secret - I tell my story to all and sundry, but much of my learning remains an impenetrable mystery - only because it doesn't fit the narrative of how things are meant to be, as seen by the powers that be. I have defied each and every stereotype time and again and refused to fit into the mould I'm meant to occupy. My goal in life is to show that everyone has the capacity to do the same and rise above the predefined bracket they're meant to occupy.

In the 16 years I have spent in Britain, I have directly and indirectly been responsible for assisting over 60,000 people into, or close to the job market, mentored over 500 people into better careers, changed lives, and I continue to do so. I am actively involved with three charities, one of which isn't even a formally constituted one. I love, live, and breathe what I do - and aside from the work I do on a voluntary basis - I resent the way I'm required to do it. This isn't about making anyone look good, not the government, not the Skills Funding Agency or the DWP. This is about doing what needs to be done. What I call the Tory way. This is what I consider the Big Society.

Getting people off welfare and into work should have but ONE goal - sustained employment for those that come to you for help. Or so you would think. Sadly, it's nothing like that in the world we inhabit. It's sad that far more important than outcomes, is process, needlessly made cumbersome and overly weighted in favour of mindless procedure and inexplicably prescriptive ways of how things ought to be done - as opposed to how things CAN be done. This leaves no room for imagination, innovation, or ingenuity and is usually dictated by the kind of regulation that favours organisations with financial clout - brawn over brains. This is wrong and unproductive. I could go into a more detailed explanation, but I need to get on to the main purpose of this blogpost. A lot of what I say below will easily make sense to people involved in the business of helping people into work. To those it seems alien gobbledy-gook, ask me and I will explain.

In very broad brush-strokes and as simple as I can make it sound, is what I think the government should (could?) do:

1. ANY formally constituted organisation (for the sake of clarity, I'll call them providers), small or large, with or without staff, with or without a myriad of mind-numbing statutory, lip-service policies, with or without a bank balance and with or without a formal contract - should be able to walk up to the JobCentre, present a predetermined set of documents and claim payment for a job outcome, a sustained job outcome over a 3-month period, a 6-month period or a 12-month period. This predetermined set of documents could include (a) an Individual Learning Plan-cum-Registration Form containing relevant information on the client helped (name, address, contact number, course of action, number of barriers being addressed, client group (see 4 below) and a unique identifier, such as a national insurance number, against which payments can be tracked to avoid duplication), (b) a series of Intervention Evidence Forms documenting the work done and assistance provided, (c) Outcome Evidence, signed by both the client AND the employer showing that the person is indeed employed. Before making any payments, the JobCentre could contact or even visit the employer and the client to verify the claim, say within 28 days. A simple identifier for the provider, say the UKPRN number should be sufficient to monitor payments against.

2. A client may elicit the assistance of any number of such providers: a church, a temple, a mosque, a support group, a community group, a job club, a training provider, a college, a charity, the local library, or even a two-bit employer, etc - the one with the relationships on the ground and thus the ability to evidence an outcome gets to claim it. Simple market forces, ingenuity and resilience at work. This will unleash the power of the thousands of organisations that have the capability, the willingness and the ability to help, but go unrewarded when they choose to help anyone. Incentivise them: it doesn't get any more Big Society than this.

3. A system like this could run parallel to existing government schemes and since it only pays out when there is a successful outcome - it will always remain cost neutral. In time, comparisons will reveal how successful this can be as opposed to organisations that make Ofsted happy and have ten million in the bank.  No targets, no contracts, no too-big-to-fails, no egg-on-the-face scandals.

4. Some clients need more support than others and thus are more costly to work with; payments claimed should reflect that. It should be down to providers to establish - and evidence which group the client belongs to. These could be young persons, persons with a disabilities, long term unemployed persons (6 months, 12 months, and so on), unemployed non-claimants, dependents, refugees, non-English speakers, etc, each one with a multiplier on a base rate for a straight JSA/ESA claimant. It's not rocket science. A simple form could help determine that.

5. I know there will be FAQs; here are some that immediately come to mind:

What about qualifications of the provider's staff and licenciature?
Anyone can help with job search. Anyone can help boost confidence. Anyone can assist with applications. If they get the job done, does it matter? Seriously, does it matter? How? Why?

But we have invested thousands in upskilling our staff, developing training materials and methods. What of that?
Well, what of it? If all that training, all those systems and materials are any good, you will get more people into work. You'll get more people into work, and be rewarded for it. What's the problem? What are you afraid of?

What about established procedures, systems and compliance?
Compliance with what? What for? If you are a formally constituted provider, you will have already been checked, inspected and due-deligenced by OFSTED, one or more 'primes', HMRC, one or more awarding bodies, your local authority, the LSE, the DWP, the HSE, your partnership organisations, the Charities Commission, and depending on what you do, one or more of many other QUANGOs. You want more? You'll have a client charter, you'll be insured  to the hilt, and if you get it wrong, you'll leave yourself exposed to negligence claims. That's your problem. As for your 'established procedures and systems', if they're any good, you will get more people into work, won't you? Where's the problem?

But won't this system encourage cherry-picking of the best, most job-ready clients?
Yes it will. Are you telling me existing systems don't do that? Please.

What about sustained support to ensure people stay in work? How can just ANY provider be guaranteed to provide that?
Easy. Payments can be graded so as to rise for each consecutive period of sustained employment. For example, 20% on a job outcome, 30% on a 3-month retention and 50% on a 6-month retention. A well-designed set of claim forms can limit payments to results.

Recruitment agencies will have an unfair advantage, won't they make a killing?
I hope they do. And why is it an unfair advantage? That IS their business, isn't it? An experienced plumber is better at fixing my boiler than I am, nothing wrong with that, is there? If they've evidenced a long-term, unemployed, benefit claimant into work, why not? Doesn't everyone win? This is a public service, not a competition. You're in it for the money, then do what you can to earn it. Be an employment agency if you have to be.

What if providers do nothing to assist someone into work, but claim an outcome anyway when someone finds a job? Isn't that fraud?
Remember the bottom-line: A person is in work. As long as the evidence, signed by no less than three parties (see 1c above) is in place and verified, this shouldn't be a problem or anyone's concern.

Of course there is far more complexity than what I have very simply explained above, but I'm happy to answer questions. I'll add more FAQs as and when I get them. Go on; poke all the holes you want. Please don't tell me how much you've invested - tell me how much you get done - not in terms of sheer numbers you attract with your government sanctioned monopoly of sorts because of your financial and bean-counter driven clout, but in terms of actual percentages of people you see and people you actually help.

This is a terrible comparison, but it would help if you saw this as the difference between a local butcher served by a small livestock farm and a supermarket supplied by an automated abbatoir.