We can no longer treat jobseekers as passive recipients. A truly innovative system will help them plan their own journeys
I recently looked at what employment support services could learn from Nesta’s work on People Powered Health (PPH) to create a longer-term, sustainable and individualised approach which offers real choice to users.
As I said then, a system which works for people should really be a given. The next step is to build one which works with people, and fundamental to this is a relationship of trust between Jobcentres and jobseekers.
Currently, Jobcentre advisors have two roles – a support role and a disciplinary role. The latter often seems to dominate in a system where 800,000 JSA claimants are sanctioned in a year (which can mean no benefits for three years) and where some people have to sign on every single day. In some cases, one civil servant tells me, illiterate jobseekers won’t tell the Jobcentre that they can’t read or write because they fear it will adversely affect their benefit entitlement.
These are hardly the foundations of a relationship of trust.
One understandable solution would be to split up support and disciplinary roles, as proposed by think tank ResPublica – but, just as with the strict teacher who you come to respect in later years, the roles by necessity go hand in hand.
Instead, trust must come from more regular and more flexible dialogue – through video calls, for example, or meetings outside the Jobcentre – and ‘sanctions targets’ must be absolutely off-limits. We could also guarantee benefits for claimants who want to try new things (small bits of paid work or work experience, for example) for a certain period of time, thereby encouraging more honesty and security.
Finally, as PPH advocated, institutional processes must also help build this relationship, which in practice means collaboration across services (such as healthcare, social care, education and other parts of the benefits system) and free flow of information around the system.
Once trust is built up – clearly no mean feat - jobseekers and advisors should jointly build a personalised work plan, setting goals, addressing barriers to work and reviewing progress together. For the most co-operative clients, this could even mean personalised budgets, letting the jobseeker choose which support and solutions they need.
In short, we must have not just a relationship of trust but a relationship of equals.
That relationship of equals will rely on good communication. In healthcare, according to the Health Foundation, 'patients often feel as if doctors have a "map" that [they] cannot see', and the same is true for jobseekers. Advisors need to tell jobseekers about the whos, whats, whens, wheres and whys of an exceptionally complex system; with more information and understanding, users are more likely to assume a sense of responsibility which until now has often been lacking.
This vision of shared goals, a relationship of equals and personalised budgets may seem a pipe dream. But in recent years Jobcentres have had more freedom to tailor their services to local challenges (such as specific skills shortages or poor transport links in rural areas), and this is just the logical next step. From there, we can bring jobseekers even further into the system, and eventually put them at the centre of the design and delivery of services.