Analysis: The Work Programme – one year on

By Philip Curry

This month marks the one year anniversary of the Work Programme, the largest single back-to-work scheme there has ever been in the UK. With long-term unemployment now at its highest point since 1996 and youth unemployment above one million, a lot is riding on the Work Programme to succeed. However it faces significant challenges, not least the current economic climate.

Contrary to some alarmist reports, the Work Programme is not on the point of collapse. It's the right way forward and can succeed in getting more people into sustainable employment than ever before. It is the best designed welfare-to-work programme there has ever been, but commissioned at a point when growth predictions were wildly different to where they are now.

It is useful to examine quite what expectations there were for the Work Programme in the first place. First, the government wanted it to get people off benefits and into work – at a higher rate than had previously been achieved and at a lower cost to the taxpayer. Secondly, it wanted all jobseekers to receive a quality service regardless of distance from the labour market. And third, it wanted significant business to go to the voluntary sector. The co-existence of these objectives has some inherent tensions.

From a provider perspective, the Work Programme one year on is not far off initial expectations. In terms of performance, recent figures released through the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) show that approaching one in four of those who had been on the programme for at least six months had started work. This isn't bad. However, we must remember that the government will use different metrics to judge performance later this year based on whether those jobs turn into long term sustainable ones. Perhaps more important is our uncertainty that contractors will collectively meet performance targets. Although it is too soon to be sure, the economy is a real concern.

In terms of quality of service, providers have found the 'black box' approach of the Work Programme a godsend, along with the ability to work with customers for up to two years. Providers are beginning to collect invaluable data about customers' barriers to work and, as operations settle, to adapt their approaches to the needs of different customers groups and labour markets.

Whilst voluntary sector organisations are playing an important role in delivering the Work Programme, it is probably fair to say that their current involvement has not met the expectations of the voluntary sector. The Department of Work and Pensions' overall spend on welfare to work programmes is likely to decrease which means there was never going to be enough work for all who wanted it. Once more, this coincides with a time when voluntary sector organisations are facing significant funding cuts from other sources. Payment by results (having to invest in delivery now with the expectation of payment further down the line) is creating its own challenges. Finally, those hardest to help jobseekers on employment support allowance who are most likely to be referred to specialist voluntary sector organisations have not been coming through in the number s that were expected.

To finish up, one recent welcome development has been the youth contract. Initial feedback from providers to ERSA is that the wage subsidy is persuading more employers to take on young workers. This has been a helpful programme adaptation, from which we must learn. The Work Programme has a huge amount to commend it, but going forward we must ensure that there is a strong partnership between government and providers in order to learn and adapt to changing circumstances ahead.

By Philip Curry, policy and communications manager at the Employment Related Services Association

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