Obviously the disappearance of Emma Harrison as its figurehead has made a difference. She's still the owner, but is no longer the face of the company. Indeed, it doesn't have a face any more. Other top people have gone as well. So maybe the ethos of the company has changed for the better. But that can only be judged from the outside by its clients and from the inside by its staff. And neither seem impressed by any perceived change.
Bearing in mind that A4e is not all about welfare-to-work, it's that area which most people experience. For staff, the pressure to achieve targets is as great as ever - more so, say some people. They've moved to "team incentives" for what are considered unachievable targets. They have to put pressure on clients from the outset. We were told back in June that caseloads were unmanageable. Now we hear of people having to wait seven weeks from their referral phone-call to their first appointment; and then of clients given no individual attention. We don't know whether this is because the number of referrals is much higher than expected or because the required staff and facilities are not in place.
Then there's the pressure to punish, or "sanction", every perceived failure to attend. Jonty Olliff-Cooper over on Twitter is insisting that A4e don't sanction people, it's the DWP. This is disingenuous. A4e files a "DNA" (did not attend) with a single mouse-click. They can also include an explanation when there's a good reason for absence. These go up to a central office which passes them on to the DWP, sometimes leaving out the explanation. And, of course, there can be mistakes. Before the WP, clients had the chance to appeal before their income was stopped. Now they can't, and there are some very angry and desperate clients.
The answer to all this, according to Olliff-Cooper, is "mystery shopping, customer panel, forum and visits". It sounds just the sort of thing people come up with in those awful meetings where you're supposed to be brain-storming; I can imagine the flip-chart sheets pinned up around the room. It's something you can't see Harrison contemplating. But "mystery shopping" is a non-starter, and is no substitute for the Ofsted inspections which the providers persuaded the government to drop. A customer panel is similarly irrelevant. A forum could be more interesting; but it would have to be pro-actively moderated, and I doubt very much that A4e could resist the temptation to moderate out everything critical or hostile, as they have always done on their websites and blogs. The plans could easily end up being entirely cosmetic; intended to improve the image of the company rather than the way in which it works. After all, if you believe that you head "a different company", why would you think anything needs to be changed?
And then, of course, there are the results. In those areas where A4e's results can be directly compared with those of other companies they have not done significantly worse - or significantly better. The fact is that almost all of them have failed to come anywhere near the results they promised in their bids. Will those results now improve? It didn't look like it from those leaked A4e figures. But we don't know because the DWP refuses to tell us.
If A4e wishes to be just another outsourcing company, it has that opportunity. The very fact that it's allowing J O-C's antics suggests it isn't there yet.