Peering into the black box: Innovation and the Work programme
The Work Programme, the government's flagship welfare to work initiative, introduced large, long payment-by-results contracts for providers that have complete autonomy as to how they support participants. So what do we know about whether this 'black box' for provision has stimulated innovation?
Our Making it Work report, published in October, assessed the current approach to tackling worklessness in the UK and made the case for innovation in the jobs market. In particular, the report cited the government's £5 billion Work Programme as a key space for innovation, stating that:
"The Work Programme has used innovative ways of commissioning and contracting, and has been designed with the intention of stimulating innovation, through freeing up of providers to deliver within a 'black-box' approach [...], longer outcome-based contracts and incentives to work with those who need it most. However, no evidence has yet been published on the extent to which innovation is actually taking place within the Work Programme, or whether constraints such as the financial models behind it are preventing investment in innovation."
Since our report, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has published one (very poor) set of official Work Programme statistics, and the first two reports from the official evaluation of the programme, the second of which was published last week. Although it's still early days, this blog briefly comments on whether this new evidence has uncovered any signs of innovation taking place.
From this perspective, the most eye-opening finding of the second evaluation report is the question of whether the black box is still open for innovation - the research uncovered conflicting messages to providers from the Department about the scope for flexibility in provision.
In a nutshell, senior officials and Ministers emphasise the freedom for providers to continuously innovate, adapt and improve, but DWP Performance Managers don't think the black box applies any longer and expect providers to focus on delivering the things they specified in their contracts.
Our Making It Work report highlighted the need for providers to be able to try new things and learn from those that do not work as key to an innovative and ultimately successful programme. So far, the research suggests that the scope for continuous innovation of this sort within the Work Programme is not clear.
Evaluation evidence may confirm some of the other concerns our Making It Work report raised. Last week's report also highlighted that many providers are finding the heavily outcome-based funding regime challenging, hampering the ability of some to invest in resources and delivery.
And the first evaluation report found that personalisation of support for different types of participants is often procedural rather than substantive in nature, and that the use of specialist provision to address individuals' needs is limited. Neither of these findings exactly suggests a programme that is embracing innovation as a route to success.
As I said it's still early days, and one of the benefits of the long contracts put in place is that there is plenty of time for both DWP and providers to adapt, so I hope that both are taking heed of the evaluation findings published to date.
We are keen to support the welfare to work industry in this endeavour.
This is why we supported a conference on driving innovation in employment services last year and why we are continuing to think, speak and write about how innovation thinking can be brought to the industry dedicated to tackling worklessness and the wider world of government and community organisations intervening in the jobs market.
 See the DWP tabulation tool or the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion's analysis of these statistics for more information.
 This second evaluation output was produced by researchers at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion - I'm one of those researchers and one of the co-authors of the report. This blog only summarises official information published by DWP and our views at Nesta. In no way does it relate to my own views or experiences as part of the evaluation team.