Thursday, 6 September 2012

A4e wants a debate

A4e, in the shape of its Director of Strategy and Policy, Jonty Olliff-Cooper, wants a debate - about the real issues, he says, not "semantics".  The piece he has written for the Guardian's Social Enterprise Network site is in response to the ASA's ruling that the company can't call itself a "social purpose company".  It's a lengthy piece, so I want to take time to answer it.

First, let's clear away another bit of "semantics".  He refers several times to their "customers".  This is inaccurate and thoroughly misleading.  As with all such contractors, the customer is the body buying the service, whether that is central government or a local council.  Ultimately, of course, that means the tax-payer.

And then, a bit of background on Mr Olliff-Cooper.  I can't do better than the Daily Mail back in February  which showed his "top-drawer Conservative Party contacts".  

So, to engage with what he says.  He believes that there is "fuzziness" in our thinking now.  The previous clear distinctions between public sector, private sector and charities no longer apply, because lots of other types of organisations have grown up in the gaps.  He refers, not very wittily, to the "blurred sector".  This is manifestly true.  A great many charities now exist solely on government contracts, often doing things vastly different from what they were set up to do.  They still, however, have to plough profits back into the work of the organisation.  We now have "social enterprises", which can take many forms (Wikipedia has a good article on this) but which are defined by not offering any benefit to their investors.  Cooper wants to say that A4e fits neatly into the mix because it "attempts to tackle poverty not through corporate social responsibility but through its core business".  He insists that they combine profit and social values and that "A4e's success has been good for our customers, good for taxpayers and good for the economy".

And that's where his argument starts to fall apart.  A4e has undoubtedly been good for large numbers of individual clients.  But it has failed many more.  And it has certainly not been good for taxpayers, having consistently failed to meet its targets whilst sucking up so much profit that it could pay out £11m in dividends last year.  Any company can call itself a "social purpose company" and few would deny that they have "social values" (even those whose businesses are clearly anti-social).  A long cooment under the article is by someone claiming to run a "profit-for-purpose" company.  It's meaningless.  And there is now, perhaps more than ever, a need to recognise that if government or councils choose to contract with private companies, this is a business arrangement.  The company is paid to deliver a service.  No amount of pretentious waffle should obscure that.


  1. "A4E is a blurred sector company."

    Job done.

  2. Nothing TO debate, "jonty".

    Your company (along with many others in this sector) have consistently failed to deliver what they promised.

    "A4e's success has been good for our customers, good for taxpayers and good for the economy".

    Has it, indeed? "Success" you say?

    To quote a certain Edmund Blackadder, as spoken to lord percy: "The eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr. Brain has long since departed, hasn't he, Percy?"

  3. this is an interesting breakdown of the work programme in pounds shilling and pence

  4. Perhaps Jonty should have had a debate with the face of A4e: Emma Harrison.

    I don't know anything about Jonty, but the name conjures up Tory Toff. If so, me thinks their PR have made yet another blunder. The only person anyone is interested in seeing in a debate is Emma Harrison.

  5. Not sure why they bother spouting this Orwellian Double Speak and oxymoronic nonsense. Maybe they think that if they repeat it often enough it will become true, at least for themselves. Is such intentional self-deception possible?

    Question for Historian: Who came up with the original design for the Work Programme? Was it DWP? Or did they commission a carefully chosen, but totally independent not-for-profit, social purpose "think-tank" without political bias of any kind to come up with the best method of tackling unemployment?

    1. You could say that the WP has its origins in Labour's New Deal. That was privatised in 2006, and in 2009 became Flexible New Deal. The WP just alters the payment system and takes away the scrutiny. If you want particular people to blame, try IDS and David Freud.

  6. Well now I do seem to have stirred up the ants' nest with my ASA complaint.
    I thoroughly agree with everything that Historian has said above. A4e's (or Jonty Toryboy's) response is a load of pretentious doublespeak. The whole thing would be laughable if it weren't so serious and affected so many people's lives (No Jonty - I mean "affected" NOT "improved"!).
    I was taught that the first law of holes is "When in one it's time to stop digging". Seems that Jonty doesn't know this - or maybe Enemma has passed him the spade and told him to get on with it?

    Still waiting Mr Vernon Coaker's response to my e-mail (see other entry re MPs visits to A4e).

  7. Dear WatchingA4e,

    Thank you for the post. I always think you are really acute in your observation of the real issues , even if i do not always agree with you.

    You are absolutely right, we would like a more open debate about our work, what we do and do not do, why, where we are doing well and not so well, and most importantly, how we can improve and do the best possible job.

    To that end, I would like to invite you to come and spend a bit of time with us.

    I do not have a fixed agenda in mind, but as a starter, how about a visit to one of our frontline offices – either close to you, or anywhere else you like, so you can meet our staff, chat to customers, and judge where we are working well and what we can do better. You could also meet with me and my team to hear how we approach our work with governments, or meet with the teams who think about performance, bidding, partnerships, etc.

    You can ask any questions you like, and we will do our best to answer them for you.

    Happy to discuss other options too if you would like.

    I hope it will give you a realistic picture of both what we do, and why we do it.

    We are actually much more interested in understanding where we are failing than where we are succeeding. With your interest and substantial amount of information about the sector, we would definitely value your honest informed view.

    If that sounds good, post below, and we can set it up.

    Let me know.


    Jonty Olliff-Cooper
    Director of Strategy & Policy at A4e.

    1. I'll assume that this is genuine.
      It seems that you haven't read enough of this blog, or read far enough back, or you would realise that I have plenty of knowledge of your company, and there would be no value at all in submitting to your charm offensive (let alone revealing my identity). I have never worked for A4e, but I am familiar with your "frontline offices".
      It may work with MPs; show them round, give them the spiel etc. What you fail to understand is that this is not the point.
      Good try.

    2. I am really sorry to hear that.

      With regard to your final point, you are right. I do not understand. What is the wider issue? We are keen to get it right.

      If it is an identity issue, I am really happy to try to find a route round that. If you would prefer not to give us your name or something like that, that is absolutely fine.

      As I say, this is not an attempt to give you our view. It is a chance for your to form your own based on the facts.

      We would like to give you the best possible view of what the company is and does. Given your obvious interest in A4e, we thought you might be keen to see a bit more.

    3. There is something so creepy about your pretended ignorance.

  8. Well said Historian
    Personally I have had too much experience and spent far too much time with A4e to volunteer to spend more time at the sanction factory.

    Since A4e advocate the PBR approach let's see what the results are. Let's then look at those results in the knowledge of all the angst, stress, despair and public cash they have cost and make a judgement on A4e and the rest of the WP.
    I know where my money is.

  9. Jonty Olliff - Cooper,

    I know you have not been at A4e THAT long. Not as long as a certain Mr Blunkett for example.

    However, even you must have seen what many ex-clients, current clients and an increasing number of staff think of the company you now work for. Why do you think A4e has the worst reputation within a sector with an already poor image (W2W) ??? Some achievement, huh?

    "I do not have a fixed agenda in mind, but as a starter, how about a visit to one of our frontline offices – either close to you, or anywhere else you like, so you can meet our staff, chat to customers, and judge where we are working well and what we can do better."

    This sounds very much like a reply Ms Harrison gave to me a couple of years ago when I emailed her about the failings of her company. She invited me to visit an A4e office and speak to staff as well.

    The trouble is, would Jonty allow me, Historian or anyone else with an eye on A4e (and the W2W sector as a whole) to speak frankly to staff and clients on neutral territory? Would clients be allowed to speak without fear of intimidation? Would staff be able to talk openly without fear of losing their jobs?

    A4e has an image problem. However, why it has this problem is pretty clear top those who have been through A4e's doors in the past. they have been at the receiving end of A4e's 'life improvement'. Mr. Ollif - Cooper needs to bear this in mind before succumbing to spin and jargon.

  10. "We are actually much more interested in understanding where we are failing than where we are succeeding. With your interest and substantial amount of information about the sector, we would definitely value your honest informed view."

    If this wasn't so rage-inducing, it'd be risible. Do you honestly think we fell to earth with the last rain shower, "jornteh"?

    Are you so detached from the reality of what's being reported both in the media, and on blogs like this, that you have no idea how to rectify your company's shortcomings(and judging from your posts, obviously your own), let alone kid on that you don't know how your company's perceived??

    Either you're bereft of the ravages of basic comprehension, or a substandard prevaricator. Probably an amalgam of both, such as it seems necessary to be, in your line of employment.

    On a personal level, I'm not only dismayed by your ersatz "concern" and "humility" , I'm positively angered by it.

    I might be one of "The great unwashed" but even my humble state-school education afforded me the powers of deduction, based on FACT.

    Tokenism, to both the public you're meant to serve, and to the MP's you ought to be accountable to, is (At least in my case) THE biggest bugbear of your company; closely followed by it's obfuscation and disingenuousness.

    There's something for you to take back to mizz harrison. It remains to be seen whether anything the people on here have said, will be acted upon, but I'll bet my own (Govt. issued) dole money that we'll be responded to in the usual fashion i.e. "lip-service".

    The trick is to find a bookmaker that'll pay out £8.6m. to one week's JSA. I'd probably have to place the equivalent to the national debt on, if I'm to win that much, given a4e's track record, as no right-minded "bookie" would ever give me odds against.

  11. Helloooo Jonty

    It was good of you to take the trouble to contribute to this Watching A4E blog. The question now is whether you will continue to do so or whether you will be frightened by and will run away from the criticisms of A4E made by historian and many others, including myself.

    I am about 20 years older than you. However, like yourself I am an alumna of Cambridge University (Newnham College) where I read Law prior to becoming a practising solicitor for several years before I got married. Now widowed, I am a Work Programme customer of A4E.

    What I need are some high level contacts within the business community in the area where I live (central south coast.) I had hoped that the local A4E staff might have these contacts within the local Chambers of Commerce, the local Rotary clubs and so forth. However, my A4E adviser told me recently that A4E does not have any local business contacts who would be useful to me. None at all, he told me, and he admitted that he does not know the reason for this alarming shortcoming.

    Nonetheless, A4E would be delighted to grab profit for itself from the taxpayer if A4E has done nothing useful but I have done all of the hard work both for myself and for A4E. Does that not strike you as an inherently dishonest way of doing business, Jonty?

    Why would the Director of Strategy & Policy want A4E’s reputation to sink even lower than Emma Harrison contrived whilst she was doing your job? There is no point in wittering about different business sectors when you can’t do the one which you claim is A4E’s “core business,” I would suggest.

  12. As a current member of staff, Jotty's line doesn't surprise me in the least. A4e has a very obvious siege mentality. They are great and everyone else is wrong. If you don't think they are any good then you are the one with the problem.

    Any decent organisation would address what many people are saying but in the brave world of procurement, why do you have to be any good when money is chucked at you for being rubbish.

    As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like failure.

  13. Much as I abhor A4e and all enterprises like them, it is current - and past - government policy that has allowed them to thrive. You can't expect A4e to stop bidding for government contracts or improve the quality of their service while the DWP (ie their "customer") is giving them such an easy ride.

    If DWP were to properly audit services of this type, or even demand that all WP providers unpack their 'black boxes' I can vouch for the fact that all kinds of unethical practices would be unearthed. But the ministers in DWP are not interested in doing this.

    I worry that this blog is chasing the monkey not the organ grinder. If a4e were to close down then some other similar, large provider would see an opportunity to seize their market share.

    I think bombarding MPs/ministers with written-up precis of sessions with useless/unprofessional advisors could be a useful first step.

    1. An interesting point (but do get a pseudonym if you want to carry on the conversation). However, you mistake the purpose of the blog. I can't expect everyone to know the history of it, but my interest was specifically A4e from the outset because it was the company I knew most about. Of course it's the responsibility of successive governments that they thrive, and of course A4e's business would be taken over by another company. But A4e has always been different, at the same time as representing the worst aspects of outsourcing.

  14. 'Ere, jaunty?

    You said in that guardian piece: "But if a profit-making organisation, such as A4e, attempts to tackle poverty not through corporate social responsbility but through its core business, it stokes anxiety in some quarters.

    Why? After all, no one seems overly bothered that for decades the private sector has been the bedrock of the NHS in the form of thousands of for-profit GP practices."

    So answer me this....If those same practices abandoned the chronically/long term sick to their own devices, whilst focusing almost exclusively on those with minor ailments, and made less people better than would have recovered throught their own immune systems anyway - What would happen to those GP practices, when they tendered for more government handouts, hm?

    Where've you disappeared to, jaunty?

  15. Fortunately, people have the option to change their GP. That isn't an option with WP.

    I'm just over halfway through my "sentence" with a4e. They haven't helped me once in trying to get "parole" through helping me find gainful employment. Far from it.

    A4e serve as much purpose as an ashtray would on a motorbike.

  16. OK, I know this is 'off topic' but, what happens to me if I do not attend my A4e appointments? They can't sanction my benefits because I don't get them as my husband works full time. I still sign on for my stamp though. I have been attending for 1 year about once a month or so and all I do is give them a list of jobs I have applied for and all they do is say haw bad the job market is. What's the point?

    1. I don't know the answer to that. Eventually, I suppose, you will be signed off. And that means that when you come to pensionable age you will either have to pay all those missed NI contributions or get a reduced pension.

  17. hi- I have a few comments for Jonty- How about reviewing the Work Programme Agreement. I think you need to look at that last "clause" on the Work Programme Agreement as it looks suspiciously like a consent for A4e to collate data and contact employers, as that what it says and as I understand my personal information comes under the data protection act,as such you are supposed to seek my consent.. not use threat of sanction to get it!The 2 other forms had explicit information about not being a santionable offence if they were not signed, this at least gave me a modicum of power even if its just a thin veneer. But then I was informed by the manager that I could not carry on with the induction unless I signed the WPA, she did relent after I practically begged ( not good for self esteem) to be able to take the agreement home and get some advice) .. btw I am a single mum to a primary school child and a teen- I felt disempowered and diappointed. Its a pretty low deal to threaten my JSA. I have since signed it and given a letter with queries and explicit statement of me signing it under duress. Just be upfront about your work and drop the patronising bs in your literature.. I mean what is all this "we expect you to" lark? am I legally obliged or are you just hoping? Be explicit!oh and please drop the oh so many assumptions in your literature that people attending the WPA do not know how to look for work..its infuriating..check the tone of advice on here for cv and job search.. it treats its audience as thinking people ( with respect)looking for work is not a game, your books make it look like primary school lit...Am looking forward to seeing some of that " can do " attitude in action:D. Oh could you do me a favour and sends a memo round asking that staff drop the pseudo " aww bless" act its unprofessional and insincere and I have to keep resisting taking the pi$$, well someones got to-lol

  18. Criticising JO-C for his first name, double-barrelled family name or his background/schooling is no basis for informed criticism of A4E or working out how to improve matters.
    Maybe you need to fork this discussion into
    - one strand for those who wish to vent into the void about posh people/Toryboys and
    - a second for those whose personal experience of A4E services raises important questions about whether the policy on which their expensive contracts are based is right and how well it is executed.
    I found on my Ideal Government blog (now retired) which looked at expensive and ineffctive public services, ID card schemes etc it was a helpful rule to study observe and report on public services in a detached way (like an ethnographer). "This is what actually happened". And then - and this is important - to set out "wouldn't it be better if" ie a wishlist based as close as possible to the real needs of those whom the original policy is intended to help.
    Through the anger expressed in comments above, it's clear there's an important job to be done here. But prejudiced ad hominem attacks are alienating to many people, and are of little practical value in improving matters.

    1. Well, thank you for telling me my job!
      Your criticisms miss the point. I rejected many of the "prejudiced ad hominem attacks" because they added nothing to the discussion, but J O-C chose to come on here and thereby incurred the wrath of many people. An interesting use of the word "prejudiced". Again, it completely misses the point that the employment of a political insider as a director of an outsourcing company is a matter for comment. And you yourself talk in a prejudiced way about "expensive and ineffective public services". I find that it is best to declare one's position, and then try to be fair in one's comments.

  19. To pick up your points here:
    - only you know the moderation task you're having to do (but I can guess); good luck with it
    - for me instinctive criticism of double-barrelled Etonians is prejudice, yes
    - my criticism of services specifically refers to IT contracts/poor online services (and my highly sceptical position on this is fully declared at five years' worth of pub-bore length at the IdealGov blog I mentioned)

    People with political connections and former officials are hired into business jobs the whole time, often for public affairs/government liaison type jobs (someone has to write the replies to all the consulations). Every major company you can think of has this: certainly IBM, HP, all the arms dealers, banks phone companies, Google, Facebook, G4S you name it. Yes - it's a matter for comment for sure. It's quite a hard call to say "this should never happen", but there's definitely room to push for some rules and greater transparency - do quite a good job.

    I generally think the people who stop being political and start those jobs earn more money but aren't, if they're honest, doing what they really wanted to do which was politics (which seems to have some curious addictive quality Ive never understood).

    Having watched the A4E Twitter engagement with some interest I'd say in this case there's an attempt at transparent and honest dialogue which is very unusual, and worth upholding. So I'm glad you're doing the blog; good luck with it. I hope that's all clear and fair.

    1. I disagree with almost all you've said, but never mind. I read a bit of that Twitter engagement and noticed a very misleading statement by J O-C. And I don't like that.


Keep it clean, please. No abusive comments will be approved, so don't indulge in insults. If you wish to contact me, post a comment beginning with "not for publication".