The Work Programme is failing and must change

Not much has changed with the Work Programme since the last set of results three months ago, and therein lies the problem.

Bill Davies is a researcher at IPPR North

Not much has changed with the Work Programme since the last set of results three months ago, and therein lies the problem

The government’s flagship welfare-to-work scheme is still delivering outcomes close to the performance of the programme it replaced. However, it is yet to deliver the step change in performance that politicians have promised.

The specific and recurrent concern about the Work Programme is the dismal performance for those jobseekers who have moved onto the programme from Employment and Support Allowance. In spite of a government target of moving 5 per cent in the first year and 15 per cent of ESA claimants in the second year into employment, the figures show the performance as only 4 per cent.

Finding employment in a difficult labour market for harder to help claimants will be difficult, but current policy may be contributing to these missed targets. There are several theories to explain why.

The first is that the targets may have been missed because they are excessively optimistic.

This is not unusual. Optimism bias was evident in previous DWP programmes too. Nevertheless, developing targets for this group is not a straightforward task,  as a DWP sponsored report admitted recently, the uncharted territory of the new ESA cohort did not provide much to go on when creating the targets, and therefore the department would need to revise their expectations accordingly.

The second, for which there is mounting evidence, is that the more difficult to help claimants, such as those ESA groups, are not a priority for the programme providers, as  government payments to incentivise these appear not to be sufficiently influencing provider behaviour.

The question is what to do to help those who need it most.

The consolidation of employment programmes from an array of complicated schemes to a single, flexible programme for the majority of claimants was intended to provide tailored support for most jobseekers, irrespective of the complexity of their barriers to work.

However, putting the vast majority of claimants into the same ‘black box’ and then expecting equal levels of support appears to be an increasingly forlorn hope.

There are a number of ways to change a future Work Programme favourably for the hardest to help.

One option would be to return to segmenting the system into different programmes for people with serious barriers to work. This already occurs under the distinction between Work Choice and the Work Programme. This would break the hardest to help participants into distinct programmes, with distinct providers that would have the time and expertise to devote to them.

There will be many on JSA who are harder to help than the ESA claimants, and differences within categories of benefits that will mean some coming through ESA onto the Work Programme will need more support than others.

There is, therefore, a need to use more sophisticated claimant diagnostic tools to identify the hardest to help, like those in Australia, to ensure not only that programme support is appropriate for different groups, but that the right groups are getting access to it.

A third idea, to prevent providers from prioritising within these new groups, would be to use an escalator funding system. Under this system, providers would be paid a low amount for the first people helped into work, with this amount rising as they are more successful and more and more people are helped into work.

The Work Programme must change. Whether the government takes up one or all three of these options, what they must not do is nothing.

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