Why we need people-powered employment support

If the NHS is Britain's religion, it’s fair to say that our employment support system is a minority cult for politicians, civil servants and policy wonks.

Most of us don’t see it day to day, but employment support has rocketed up the agenda as political parties fight over who can be ‘tougher on benefits’ and artificial divisions between ‘workers and shirkers’ become ever more accepted.

Put crudely, employment support is less important to fewer people, so it’s never benefited from the political will or funding needed for innovation. Meanwhile, its users are some of society’s most vulnerable and least empowered to demand change.

The system needs a radical new approach. Continuing the NHS analogy, I want to explore how People Powered Health (PPH), Nesta’s work on patient empowerment, could be an inspirational model.

Over 18 months, PPH helped six teams across England innovate towards a healthcare system 'for people, by people and with people' – an agenda which is more relevant now than ever. In a series of blogs, I’ll be exploring what it would take to create a system for people, by people and with people to transform the lives of the almost two million unemployed people in the UK.

It should be a given that a public service works for people above all else, but employment support hasn’t kept up with users’ ever more complex needs or with dramatic changes in the labour market.

We currently focus on short-term outcomes: off-flow – how many people leave Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) – or, allegedly and controversially, the number of benefit sanctions handed out. That focus must shift towards long-term, people-based outcomes, as is happening in healthcare.

This means that every jobseeker should know, from their first Jobcentre interview, that they will see the same advisor on every visit. It means building a comprehensive, personalised and holistic work plan which 'compiles their work goals; sets achievable targets for progress towards these; and puts in place the support and resources to get there', to use PPH’s exact phrasing. It means understanding every individual’s barriers to work, from poor education and skills, problems at home and social exclusion to physical and mental disability, parenting demands and substance abuse.

Furthermore, recent statistics show that over 90,000 people who left JSA in November 2013 were back on it six months later. Or, in other words, finding a job often doesn’t mean keeping a job – so we also need to ensure jobseekers find fulfilling, suitable and sustainable jobs.

That will only happen if we offer users real choice through a range of services (such as some of the great initiatives our Centre for Social Action works with), through innovative ways of job matching and through expanding the New Enterprise Allowance scheme for self-employed people.

But finding that good job is still not enough; the system also needs to commit to its users for the long haul. To continue the parallel with health, consider unemployment as a symptom and the long-term barriers as the underlying causes. Curing the symptom doesn’t make the underlying causes go away. So once people have found a job, they should still have access to complementary support co-ordinated through their Jobcentre.

Finally, Jobcentres must actively support in-work progress. Shockingly, three-fifths of people moving into employment in 2014 were low-paid – and a salary below the living wage is hardly a recipe for long-term success. Only with further training will newly-employed people be able to reach more sustained, fulfilling work.

Every year, we spend billions on employment support, and we don’t even know what works. Given how many misperceptions there are about unemployment, I think it’s more important here than anywhere that we know whether public money is being used effectively. That’s why we want to see more use of trialling, evaluation and evidence-based decision-making, and why we’re helping our CSA grantees ascend the Standards of Evidence ladder.

But finding out what works and providing user-focused services isn’t radical enough. As I’ll look at in my next post, we also have to help users take ownership of the system.


Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Matt Stokes

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Matt was a senior researcher working on the collaborative economy and digital social innovation.

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