Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Attack and defence

Our attention was drawn (thanks, Solomon) to a post on the businesszone site which has the quote of the week from Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK:  "Speaking at the opening of Social Enterprise Exchange in Glasgow, he went on to say that at a recent event, his chair, Claire Dove, 'almost decked' Emma Harrison, the 'infamous' founder of A4e."  He also said that A4e was about "pure profiteering and greed".  Holbrook's organisation is not alone in distancing itself from A4e.  It defines a social enterprise in the usual way, and specifically excludes any company which exists to make profits for shareholders or to "make its owners very wealthy".  Not so an organisation called ClearlySo, which says that it "connect(s) social enterprises with investors & the corporate world".  Their definition of a social enterprise is so elastic that they talk loosely of a "social business" which aims "to do good by doing well" (which is an inversion of one of Emma Harrison's little sayings) and A4e qualified to be in their directory.   The recent scandal got them seriously debating whether the company ought to stay in it, and now they've decided that it shouldn't.  The logic of their reasoning is beyond me.

Among those who really don't like A4e and all it represents are a lot of "voluntary sector" organisations.  This is another area where definitions are a bit blurred.  But on the Third Sector website someone called Debra Allcock Tyler tells us that "Charities should be running services because they care for people, not profit."  On the subject of the A4e scandal, she says: "I've been particularly amused by the moral outrage expressed by some of our politicians about the size of the salaries and bonuses paid to its directors."  Why should they be surprised when that's what businesses are for?  But her conclusion is that all the contracts should be given to charities.  "Our sector isn't in it for the money. We will do whatever it takes to continue to serve our beneficiaries, none of the money given to us will be distributed in profits and we do not walk away when the money dries up. So for me it's a no-brainer. Use charities to deliver services to vulnerable people."  I disagree.  The answer is a public sector which is properly valued, and actually pays people to do the front line work rather than just the management.

A4e, of course, are fighting back, with yet more PR.  They have now engaged "support from the Conservative Party's former campaign director", according to PRWeek.  "A small number of senior employees at Quiller Consultants, led by George Bridges, are working on what sources have described as a ‘crisis comms brief’......... A senior public affairs figure commented: ‘Bridges has very senior connections, and his crisis management role will be to help A4e get through its present mess.’"  Those "very senior connections" again; Bridges apparently ran George Osborne's 2010 election campaign.  But will they pull A4e out of the mess?  The company already employs at least 4 PR companies and has recently worked with another three.  Is the current need really for friends in high places?



  1. One could argue that it's all a moot point really.

    After the figures are released with regards to the performance of A4e on the current contracts then no amount of spin will save the Company.

    Before this mess? Perhaps they could have pulled it off... at this point, the brand has so little value that it will undoubtedly be chopped.

    So, yes, I believe it is the end for A4e, one way or another.

  2. And who's paying for employing these PR firms ..... rhetorical question of course .....

  3. Interesting comment re not for profit organisations and the OLASS contract. All other providers apart from A4e are FE colleges, who may make a profit out of prison education but plough that money back into the community, supporting education provision that may not otherwise be viable. Think of the college lecturers who get TUPEd across from the public sector to the private sector, although they firmly believe that education should be a 'not for profit' provision, but end up contributing to the enormous dividend paid out to Emma Harrison, whilst being told that they cannot have a pay rise if they stay on their old college contracts, because they earn too much money, compared to the derisory pay rates paid by A4e to new starters. Quality is not considered a priority.

    1. The funding for OLASS provision is dire and if you deliver the contracts properly and pay your staff fairly there is no profit to be made. I ran Home Office, then OLASS Prison Education contracts for a college over several years and the contracts just about washed their faces by contributing a small amount to central infrastructure and back office. Real profit would only possible by significantly reducing staff costs, reducing quality or both!

      Staff I employed until 2009 are amongst those that are in scope to TUPE to A4e and the decision over these contracts needs to be made soon to enable the necessary and important due diligence to take place for the staff transfers before the contract commences on August 1st – believe me this process is complicated enough when between two colleges let alone from college to private sector!

      I am greatly saddened to see what has happened to OLASS over the past few years and it’s difficult to see how the latest developments are going to improve this area of work. A large number of successful and experienced OLASS providers were dumped in 2009 when two-thirds of the provision was awarded to one provider, whose portfolio spread from the North East right down to the South Coast. Now three more established OLASS colleges have been dispensed with in the latest tender, leaving only two experienced OLASS colleges, one college totally new to the sector and A4e.

      Interesting too that A4e (albeit along with many others) have successfully come through the Pre-Qualification Stage of the latest Government Contract to support NEET yong people – and the A4e ‘news’ was out long before the deadline for this PQQ! A4e are now emailing various organisations including colleges in the search for potential sub-contractors!

  4. I knew A4e employed a PR firm, but hadn't realised they had four.

    No matter how clever and slick these PR companies think they are, I suspect A4e will be history sooner rather than later. I can't help thinking of the old adage about re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic!

  5. Just a quick thought.. They have hired 4 PR companies, to stop bad press, to make good press whatever.. If they are being paid to create pro a4e news then they havent really done very well have they. If they are there to stop bad press then they havent done very well have they.

    They forget that the unemployed have long memories, and we have time to pass the word around. We have families and friends. The whole new media, facebook/google plus, these blogs, are all a way of communications beyond the main media. I wouldnt be surprised that some of these PR firms actually have people trawling sites to make pro a4e comments, to threaten and bully to try to stop people from talking about their experiences. I remember when you had to change to this blog due to a complaint by someone. Maybe a4e will have to "rebrand", but the wouldnt solve the reputational problems a4e has. (I did as part of my qualification a marketing module loved it so i know the power of the press for good or bad)

  6. A4E bully people? not really,this company is pathetic, if you ever been on an A4E "course" speak up about and your experience there, the more people who do this this the better.

  7. If they want to improve A4E's PR they will need to start by making sure all their staff know what they are talking about, which will entail paying for training. I have an advisor at present who quite obviously doesn't, although whether this is deliberate or not I don't know.

    I've relayed the information to my local job centre who can't understand why A4E are telling me this either. I went in to speak to the Job Centre about this again earlier this week, having already been in the previous week and apparently they are so unhappy with (my local) A4E that they are "keeping an eye on them", this in addition to various negative off the record comments I have already heard over the past 6 months.

  8. I was recently forced to attend a 2 day course at my local A4e, out of 18 "clients" only 4 attended.

    Due to "Staff shortages" (and luckily for me) the first day was shortened to just one hour, but the second day was 6 hours of mind numbing patronizing drivel.

    All the questions were constructed in a quite obvious way to make you feel as insignificant as possible.

    The only "acceptable" answers were the premeditated ones she had in mind, anything else was questioned in an arrogant bullying manner.

    She spent a lot of the time asking a question and leaving us to "Discuss" the subject.
    On return she approached the white board and asked us for the blatantly obvious answers. I threw a few curve balls in there just to piss her off :)

    My favorite section was when we were asked if we approached people in a train station and asked them their opinion on the unemployed, what would their response be.
    Obviously, the answers she wanted to hear were "scounger" "lazy" etc, as she was very keen to scribble these down on the whiteboard.

    I suggested that maybe peoples response would be more focused on the millions of tax payers money that was being wasted on profit making companies. And the level of fraud and deception in these companies etc etc
    "I've been told I'm not allowed to discuss that" was her response.
    But I insisted that if you bring up the subject of unemployment the A4e scandal would be in the forefront of most peoples mind, the biggest scrounger being A4e itself.....judging by her response this wasn't up for discussion.

    The course in a nutshell was....

    Because you are unemployed, you are obviously stupid and incapable.
    You will leave here feeling useless and insignificant and give up on any dreams and aspirations you might have.
    You WILL take any minimum wage, government subsidized, job with no future, and I will take the credit and financial benefits from this.

    It was a clumsy attempt at brainwashing.
    The course could have been written and run by a twelve year old, it was that transparent and blatant.

    On finishing the "course" we were forced, yes forced to write down feedback for the course.

    As we had to name and sign these feedback forms, I can only assume they were to confirm we had attended the course (for A4e records).
    They couldn't seriously be asking for feedback, surely they know already.

    So a 2 day course in one day, targets

    A complete total and utter waste of time and taxpayers money. This sham needs to end.

    1. Feedback forms are kept so that the job centre can see them, if they ask. At least this is what we are told about the feedback forms they give out for job search, which must be completed after each session.

      "What did you like about it?"
      "What did you learn?"

    2. I'm a trainer and I don't force my customer to sign theiy feedback if they wish to remain anonymous, good or improvement feedback is the only way we improve our services, and I welcome all discussions as I feel its helps prplr communicate better, I know I'm not perfect but I have also been unemployed at points in my life so tend not to patronise people. Hope that helps..?

    3. AnonymousMar 29, 2012 11:24 AM, We are not saying ALL the staff at a4e are like that, we know a lot do their best, we understand but you are being pushed, we clients are being pushed, There are a few like you who don't patronise, but you have to admit some do. Just in my case i feel the good people are rare..

    4. That's cool I realise you're not, and I have to be honest I think some of the training material is not the best, so I adapt, but making sure I deliver contractually aswell, to make it fun, energising, real, interesting, because we all learn better that way, and I also try my best to engage and get to know my learners so building trust and rapport, we have a good laugh at times. I myself have been on training courses in commercial companies in the past and I've thought time to sleep or Gawd this is rubbish, and I try to relate to my experiences and and also as a professional trainer its our responsibility to deliver good training as per my PTLLS and CIPD qualifications, morally too.

    5. The point is, and what people seem to be failing to see, is that the whole point of these courses is to belittle the attendees into taking any menial job that is on offer.
      Not for the benefit of the attendee, but for the benefit of the person running the course.

      The thinly disguised concern for my future, very quickly dissolves into patronizing contempt of my existence.

      It benefits the government if I am sanctioned, they don't have to pay me, and I am no longer on the "Jobless" list.
      Surely this was taken into account when constructing this program. If I am sanctioned, my only route of appeal is via a hand written letter to an invisible force, that decides my future benefits.

      The people who staff A4e, in my eye's, are nothing better, and no better qualified, than the individuals that choose to work for recruitment company's.
      They're only goal is to profit from your existence.

      This whole process is thatcherite in the extreme.

  9. As I had to attend Jobfit today,after signing on at JCP and roaming around,I noticed there performance board.. "job fulfilment rate %10.4 area 1 %9.4 area 2 jesus that is less than projected rates just by natural reduction in employment......what is there purpose?

  10. Interesting article from Sydney Morning Herald about the systemic fraud within the privatised welfare to work sector in Australia.

    It sounds all too familiar.

    1. So it should, a4e in Australia would appear to be employing the same modus operandi, setting performance targets for staff which are impossible to meet, and then bullying staff who do not achieve these targets. Given that the wages of these staff would appear to be under the industry average by a significant margin, the pressure is on to make claims as large as possible to keep the system happy. And keep your job..
      As for training courses, the in-house provision of training by job search companies is and does lead to corrution, this is unaviodable. If you are running your own courses, you will pressure your clients, whom you are supposed to be getting work for to do courses which are sometimes demeaning and often of dubious quality. Service providers are paid significant amounts of money per client, and if you can put 10 to 20 client through a course the benefits are obvious.
      The provision of certain services, should always be the responsibility of governments, welfare and employment service should remian so. What is achieved by privitisation of employment services is simply the wholesale transfer of responsibility and profit in the form of public monies to private companies, the results of which being now self-evident.
      It is high time the people had a say in welfare to work schemes and the private sector had its piggy snout withdrawn from the public trough.....
      The Flying Column

  11. The Work Programme Revisited: BBC Radio 4 8pm-Thursday 29 March. That's tonight, folks!

  12. Many a person has a distrust of PR. They think that a PR company's job is to present the best image their rather than telling the truth. An oversimplification, sure. However, A4e no doubt feel they need all the help they can muster right now.

    As Wiki states:

    "Public relations (PR) is the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics[1]. Public relations provides an organization or individual exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that do not require direct payment.[2] Their aim is often to persuade the public, investors, partners, employees and other stakeholders to maintain a certain point of view about the company, its leadership, products or of political decisions. Common activities include speaking at conferences, winning industry awards, working with the press, and employee communication"

    A4e for a long time have tried to present a particular image to the public and media. For example, calling themselves a "social purpose company" aims to make people think they operate along the lines of a social enterprise and / or they are socially responsible. All done to present a softer, more caring image. Of course, many large companies use PR to put a positive spin on their operations, so A4e in hardly alone.

    However, now we have seen the "brown smelly stuff hit the fan" so to speak A4e have decided that the only way is to come out fighting and answer their critics. The problem here of course is that most contributing to this blog and further afield are well aware that A4e had a major image problem. And that was BEFORE the current fraud allegations!

    In essence, what we are seeing after many years of spin and corporate speak is a series of damage limitation exercises from A4e. Such as:

    • Ms Harrison resigning as the govts families tsar.
    • Then resigning as chair of A4e (although still owning most of it).
    • A4e challenging the Commons Public Accounts Committee's findings on their performance figures.
    • A4e airbrushing Ms Harrison from their main websites.

    Will it all work? Probably not. Indeed, I'd put money on it not working overall. Firstly, people have long memories. A few PR puff pieces will not change people's experiences of A4e.

    Secondly, prominent politicians on A4e's back in the shape of Margaret Hodge and Fiona MacTaggart. This has not happened before. Indeed it was MP's who defended A4e and made excuses for them and the W2W sector in general.

    Thirdly, more of the mainstream media (outside Private Eye and the Guardian) hitting A4e hard. The Daily Mail and Daily telegraph may well have been natural supporters of A4e in the past. Recently however, they have been reporting on A4e's woes with some gusto.

  13. This week I went to A4E for the first induction. I have been applying for jobs for a year without success. I have not been bullied like this since I was at school. I came away in tears after have what self confidence I had left humiliated by the A4E staff member who took the induction.


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