Monday 30 November 2009

A4e and the PADA

Ever heard of the PADA? I hadn't. It's the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, a body set up by the DWP to "set up a national, trust-based pension scheme called ‘personal accounts’ that will help millions of people on low and moderate incomes, who do not have access to a good-quality workplace pension, save for their retirement." What better way to get this worthy organisation off the ground than to give out £3m worth of contracts to the private sector? According to a news information system, "A4E Ltd., Sheffield, United Kingdom, won a 3 million GBP multiple awardees contract award from Personal AccountsDelivery Authority to provide social, economic and market research services. (Official EU Ref. No 305010-2009)." If you're wondering what a "multiple awardees contract" is, so did I. But according to the site, there are 35 companies, many of them recognised research companies like Yougov, which have a slice of that £3m contract. Still, 1/35th of £3m is nearly £86,000.

Friday 27 November 2009

"Our Shared Promise on Customer Care"

It's headlined "A shared promise to those participating in welfare-to-work programmes" and can be read on the Jobcentre Plus website. It "was developed by ERSA, the representative body for independent providers of publicly funded welfare-to-work programmes and is supported by the Department for Work and Pensions, including Jobcentre Plus, the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) and the British Association for Supported Employment (BASE)" and was launched by Jim Knight MP. All the providers, including A4e, have signed up to it. "It includes commitments from providers to:
  • Listen to customers and provide support based on each customer’s circumstances and needs
  • Help customers identify and make the most of their strengths
  • Make the best use of the customer’s time, taking account of personal circumstances and by being clear when things need to happen"
and there are equally unexceptionable commitments required from customers. Nothing wrong with that. But I can't help wondering why the providers need to state this, when one would assume that it was required in their contracts.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Must try harder

For reasons best known to themselves, A4e have a blog called A4elivenews on a free blogsite. Whoever is responsible for it should bear in mind that a company with interests in education and training needs to avoid basic grammatical errors such as "Whose getting bored of TV?" (should be "who's", of course, and "bored of" is dubious) and "The media of late has been quick to voice parental concerns" ("media" is plural, so the verb should be "have", not "has").

And there's an interesting post on from Jan Cavelle, who runs a furniture company. Jan went to the Enterprising Women Awards and heard Emma Harrison speak. "Now, Emma," she writes,"is clearly an amazing lady – a sort of cross between a female Lord Sugar and Sheffield’s answer to Mother Theresa – and no doubt the most phenomenal success story. Her talk was natural, fascinating and funny." But she was less than impressed with her speech. Emma was dismissive of people whose lack of self-confidence stops them doing something; and of those who don't have a mentor and are therefore bound to fail. Jan Cavelle concludes, "But I know that even though I am mini-league business-wise, I have – without a mentor – made a success of things in many people’s eyes, against some odds. In doing so, I provide employment for 30-odd people. I am sorry, Emma, but if I can keep progressing on working on myself and at least ensure security for them, overall I reject your tag of failure."

Tuesday 24 November 2009

A4e and healthcare

A4e and healthcare - the terms don't go naturally together. But yes, A4e is involved in healthcare.

NDCs (New Deal for Communities) were set up by the government in some of the most disadvantaged parts of UK cities to provide regeneration and improvement. Large sums of money were pumped in to improve housing and, often, to build large facilties for community services. One such NDC is Aston Pride, and part of it is the Community Outreach Family Support Service. Now, search the site and you won't find any mention of A4e. But there's a document online which tells us that they "Successfully commissioned all Primary contractors for the COFSS Programme, including the Health and Regeneration Management Team awarded to A4e Ltd following an open competitive tender".

Not that A4e is reticent about it. On its own website the company tells us that "If you live in Aston, A4e can deliver healthcare to you and your family in the heart of your community". Services include "Support for pregnant women and expectant mothers" (Pregnancy, Birth and Parenthood Workshops, Ante Natal classes and ‘Meet your Midwife’ sessions) and "Wellbeing support that offers much more than healthcare…" which consists of Family cookery lessons, Welfare benefit & debt advice, and Confidential domestic violence support. And on an A4e blog site we learn of an event they're holding on 5 December which "will offer the community free help, support and information on: Immigration, Asylim [sic] claims & status, welfare, debt, pregnancy, birth, health and wellbeing to mention only a few."

Again, one is reminded of the super-contract idea, where every conceivable service is rolled into one contract.

Monday 23 November 2009

A4e's answer to Facebook, and other oddments

An article on the website describes A4e's launch of "The UK’s first ever social networking community to help reduce unemployment". "The site," says the article, "MyA4e Community, has been specifically designed for Flexible New Deal (FND) employees, with each having their own unique personal profile which converts into a copy of their CV and provides access to forums, messaging, available jobs plus news and events in their local area." A jobseeker from Hull describes the site as "very similar to Facebook." Now, I'm not disparaging this idea. I think it's a good use of technology, and it will be interesting to see how it works out in practice. Linking up a lot of unemployed people could have its drawbacks.
Meanwhile, an intriguing piece appeared on a Polish website (in English, I hasten to add!). A4e has welfare-to-work contracts in Poland. The piece is about using the private sector in social housing (I hate that term). One paragraph reads: "Michael Dembinski, the BPCC’s head of policy, mentioned PPP projects in the UK that linked social housing with training and resocialisation, delivered by private sector benefits-to-work companies such as Chamber members Reed in Partnership, Working Link [sic] or A4E. He described one such project in Glasgow, run by Reed in Partnership, where participation in a 20-week course leading to vocational qualifications in the construction sector was linked to the provision of social housing." Alarm bells started ringing. Does it mean that your tenancy is linked to undergoing training by private providers? Apparently not. The only link I can find is on a presentation by Reed in Partnership, delivered in March this year, which says "DCLG and DWP are working more closely together on the housing and worklessness agenda. Nine Flexible New Deal Phase 1 proposals with partnership working with housing associations as a key focus across all." I can't find any suggestions of taking this further. Maybe Reed and others have been over-egging things slightly. But it does remind one of A4e's ambition to have super-contracts from local authorities which would encompass most of the public services accessed by the disadvantaged. While neither Labour nor the Conservatives have indicated any appetite for this, it could well be that some cash-strapped authorities (especially after the May election) could find it attractive.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The Emma Harrison Story

The business world likes big, colourful personalities like Sir Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar and Sir James Dyson. Some entrepreneurs achieve huge status because of their ethical stance; Dame Anita Roddick comes to mind. It's harder to gain that kind of reputation if your business depends on government contracts and your income is mainly from the public purse. But A4e's Emma Harrison is trying.
Back in 2005 the Independent published an article "Lord and Lady of the Dance". "Putting on a 'Strictly Come Dancing' bash for 300-odd guests is par for the course for the party-mad Harrisons, says Simon Beckett". It was "in aid of the NSPCC Full Stop Campaign, of which Emma is chair of all the regions."
Thornbridge Hall, the Harrisons' Derbyshire mansion, is featured on another website where we can read not only about the house itself but about the Thornbridge Country House Brewing Company that's part of the Harrisons' business. Jim Harrison, Emma's husband, also has a small food company, Novantia.
Lately, the Emma Harrison story is appearing more often. A year ago the BBC Local website for Sheffield and South Yorkshire published a long piece about her by Stephanie Barnard which is unashamedly sycophantic (and not very literate): "I’m sat there without an agenda, no questions. I just want to know who Emma Harrison is…" she writes. This must be the definitive version of Emma's autobiography. In September this year another rehash of it appeared on a website called Sooperarticles. Curiously, the article is way out of date. Its last paragraph reads "In addition to Make Me A Millionaire, Harrison is also chair of the NSPCC's Full Stop campaign, for which she aims to raise £1,000,000 by 2006. She is also starting a project with Anita Roddick to enable women victims of abuse to create their own small businesses." Anita Roddick died in 2007.
I'm sure that Emma is aware that there are dangers in all this.

Monday 16 November 2009

Global Entrepreneurship Week

Yes, it's Global Entrepreneurship Week this week, and the event was launched today at the British Library One of the speakers was A4e's Emma Harrison. "Emma Harrison, chair of A4E says entrepreneurs will always find their own way through the system. She tells her own entertaining story about illegal tuck-shops, blagging her way onto a university course, and running her Dad’s firm after 18 days. Emma’s top tips for entrepreneurs having transformed her business into a £200 million turnover success. On leadership: inspire, encourage and elevate, find your passion, purpose, a mentor and do four marketing activities a day to get your business out there."

Friday 13 November 2009

Channelling the money

A4e has benefitted greatly, along with other companies, from the government's determination to take powers away from democratically elected local councils and hand them over to unelected bodies. And now that they want to channel funds through local councils they're increasingly finding that they can't.

Take the Future Jobs Fund. This was designed actually to create jobs, albeit temporary, for young people, so bids were invited from councils and from "partnerships" which could cover a wider area. But these partnerships tend to include private companies. In the Plymouth area, for example, the contract has gone to a group headed by the Wolseley Community Economic Development Trust, an organisation mainly funded by the council and European money, working with JCP - and A4e. (Just how much involvement A4e will have isn't clear.)

Then there are the Regional Development Agencies. These have often come under fire for being very expensive quangos soaking up money that should be going into development and regeneration, and the Conservatives have made noises about abolishing them. The NWDA, operating in the North West, has been more criticised than most. At the end of last year it was revealed that it had spent nearly £90,000 on attending party conferences, and the Taxpayers' Alliance branded it an expensive failure which had proved ineffective in creating new jobs, attracting investment and bridging the gap between rich and poor. One of the NWDA's operations is called Business Start Up which is run by A4e. "Business Start Up is a new funding initiative operated by A4e on behalf of the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA) aimed at encouraging business start ups and advising fledgling businesses within hard to reach groups and areas in the Northwest. The fund is operated locally by A4e’s Northwest based consortium. Access to Business Start Up and any other business support products in the region can be found through Business Link Northwest, the gateway to business support in the region."

But not every council is happy with this arrangement. In Sefton on Merseyside the council wanted to run their own Business Startup scheme with the money on offer, but were told they could not. A report to the council's cabinet said: "Initial discussions ...... indicated that an additional cash contribution was required from participating organisations in order to co-fund the Business Start Up programme in their area. Organisations not providing an additional contribution would have delivery managed by an intermediary (A4E)." The council thought that they had arranged the required funding but "the Agency declined this offer, without clear reasoning, and offered instead direct contracting by the Agency (through its project manager A4E)." Council members were not happy, but were helpless to do anything about it.

Perhaps more councils will start to question the wisdom of distributing funding through private companies.

Thursday 12 November 2009

"Joined Up Moving Up"

A4e's news page reports: "The Welfare to Work Panel’s report 'Joined Up Moving Up' was launched today at a well attended and successful event in Central Westminster Hall. The Welfare to Work Panel’s report 'Joined Up Moving Up' was launched today at a well attended and successful event in Central Westminster Hall. Employment Minister Jim Knight spoke alongside panel chair Keith Faulkner from Working Links, Rob Murdoch from A4e, Chris Ledgard from Collinson Grant and CBI Director of Public Services Susan Anderson."
This panel was formed by the CBI, so you would expect that it would lean towards private business interests. Its Chair, Keith Faulkner, is also Chairman of Working Links (Employment) Ltd, one of A4e's competitors. Selections from the contributions at the launch can be watched here. A4e's Rob Murdoch talks about independent providers bringing "fantastic innovation", a personalised service and reduced expenditure on benefits. We need to capture that innovation, and develop more dynamic services to get people into work. The role of prime contractors is to ensure that all the services in an area are meeting the needs of the customer. The "supply chain" must be healthy and thriving to provide the best services. There was also a heavy hint about A4e's ambition to provide a more holistic service, one which can have an input into many aspects of the life of an individual or family - the super-contracts which they advocated to the DWP. Murdoch said that welfare reform cuts across all departments because it impacts on all fronts. Customers have a multitude of barriers, and they want to work with customers on all barriers to provide a more coherent service.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The FND advertising campaign

We reported on A4e's "Know Hope" roadshow, marketing its Flexible New Deal offering. So it's interesting to read on The Drum, a website for the marketing industry, an account of the campaign by a firm called Deviate: - "Deviate creates Flexible New Deal Work for A4e".
Of course at this stage success can only be measured by the amount of attention the campaign raised. "Daily blog reports encouraging visitors to track the tour’s progress helped generate almost 7,500 website visits in the first three weeks with a further 1,500 people visiting A4e’s online Flikr photo-gallery. A4e’s dedicated site for employers, also created by Deviate, was promoted by direct mail and online and print business media coverage." Perhaps JCP also has some indication of its success in the number of clients choosing A4e over the competition. As to the success of FND - that will be another story.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Connecting Communities Plus and A4e

You may never have heard of "Connecting Communities Plus". An official document tells us that " Connecting Communities Plus, Community Grants (CCPlus) were announced and launched by the Home Office in October 2005. They formed part of the Government’s agenda for community cohesion outlined in Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society (IOSS) (Home Office, 2005). The funding was designed for local community groups and aimed to foster both racial equality and community cohesion." The community grants scheme came to an end in 2006 and was followed by another £18m of funding over 3 years for strategic grants, project grants and community grants. The scheme is described here. If you read to the end of that document you will see that the grants administrator for the strategic and project grants is A4e.
There's some slight confusion, in that A4e states that it was its Foundation for Social Improvement that was responsible, but also has a separate website for the scheme.
I'm certain that A4e did the job properly. My question is why a private company needed to be involved at all. I don't know whether they were paid for the work, but if so it would have been no more (and possibly less) than a quango would have cost. But it does seem that this is another area where A4e is establishing itself as the expert.

On a lighter note, one of the places in Britain that I really want to visit is the Eden Project. The Plymouth Herald reported in October that Eden has appointed a new chairman and three new members of the Eden Trust - one of whom is A4e's Emma Harrison.

Monday 9 November 2009

A disappointed customer

An interesting article in the Telegraph says, "Employers have questioned the quality of the recruitment services provided by Jobcentre Plus and private contractors such as A4E after trying to hire staff." It describes the experience of "Richard Cook, director of London-based Champion Communications" who "said he had two vacancies and had approached A4E for help but had been left disillusioned by the experience." The A4e office was not prepared for that sort of enquiry, asked whether he could take on non-graduates, but didn't ask what his business did. "He does not know to this day that we are a PR company or that we focus on technology and media branding, which are fundamental questions to ask," Mr Cook said. "It did not stand up to the commitment that this organisation has in getting people back into work."
The Telegraph lumps this incident together with a survey by the Federation of Small Businesses which reported that 34% of its members thought that JCP was ineffective when they wanted to hire staff. (That's a minority, by the way!)
A4e has, of course, apologised, and promised to get their act together.


It has always been A4e's strength that it continually diversifies into new business opportunities. As welfare-to-work becomes a more crowded and less attractive business in the UK, A4e has spread into other areas such as education; and it's doing that in Germany as well. A German news report describes its certification as a vocational trainer.

Another new project is A4e Insight, slogan "Worldwide Business Experience you can Trust". "A4e Insight is the Research and Consultancy arm of A4e, a market leader in global public service reform and in the design, development and delivery of front-line public services that benefit individuals, organisations and communities" says its website. The four case studies it cites provide something of a puzzle. Two of them are in areas of business where A4e has a large stake. Money guidance is a new but profitable field for the company, and here it's presented as testing a pilot scheme for the Financial Services Authority. We also have A4e's contracts in "Invest in Skills" and "Train to Gain" described as work on behalf of the Learning and Skills Council of Yorkshire and Humberside. But the other two case studies seem to be departures for A4e. It did some market research for a Global provider of CAD/CAM software; and it provided help with the bidding process for "the country’s leading provider of civil enforcement services" which "has significant contracts with both central and local government." (If you're wondering what "civil enforcement" means, its the bailiffs.) So it seems that A4e's undoubted expertise in writing winning bids for government contracts can be sold to other companies.

Sunday 8 November 2009

A4e - an "environmentally responsible company"

From time to time a correspondent finds something I've missed, and I'm indebted to one for this piece from the Low Carbon Innovation Network. It's dated July 2008. Enjoy.

Friday 6 November 2009

Select Committee Enquiry - a summary of submissions

We reported a while ago the submission that A4e made to the Work & Pensions Select Committee's enquiry into the "management and administration of contracted employment programmes". There are now links to all the submissions on the House of Commons website; and they are helpfully summarised on the Indus Delta site. There are some very interesting points from providers, representative bodies and the DWP. The Public and Commercial Services Union make powerful points which are treated rather patronisingly in this summary, and it's worth reading their submission in full. The union's stance is summed up in "PCS believes that it is wrong to allow private sector contractors to profit from the unemployed." But they are a lone voice in this welter of opinions.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Pathways results

Pathways to Work is the programme aimed at getting people on incapacity benefits back to work. The results, published today, are well below target. The average of all the providers is 12% job outcomes. A4e actually did better than its main rivals (Ingeus and Shaw Trust, which had similar numbers of clients) with 14% outcomes. The totals include both those who volunteered for the programme, and those who were "mandated" onto it; and, not surprisingly, the volunteers did much better then the coerced. But the overall results show once again that these contracts are not value for money.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Work for your Benefit

"Work for your Benefit" is a pilot scheme cooked up by Yvette Cooper and the DWP aimed at people who have been out of work for two years. It's explained on the DWP website. It consists of "up to six months" of "intensive work experience which will help improve their employability." You may suspect that this is punitive, or pandering to the "make 'em work" brigade, but of course that's not how it's portrayed.
The two pilot areas are Greater Manchester and East Anglia, and the PQQ results have been published. Twelve providers have been successful at this stage in each area, and they include A4e as well as other companies like Serco and Seetec that we're becoming familiar with.
As the Indus Delta site says, "The future of WfYB is uncertain under a Conservative government, so shortlisted organisations will have to decide whether it's worthwhile bidding for the contracts." But even without a change of government, this scheme seems unlikely to survive. It's hard enough to find work placements for the recently unemployed, and any contract that depends on guaranteeing getting people into such placements is not very attractive.

Sunday 1 November 2009

How is FND going?

There's an interesting blog (see Interesting Sites on the right) following an ex-offender's experience on Flexible New Deal. He's going into detail about his introduction to the programme, and comes to it with experience of the old New Deal. And he's aware that as an ex-offender he faces more obstacles to employment than most. Such clients are not attractive to FND providers (and will be even less so under the Tory proposals) when so much of the payment comes from getting and keeping a job. One new job title the blogger has come across is "Career Coach", the new name for what A4e used to call advisers.

Meanwhile, the stories about the government preparing to sell off parts of the nationalised banks to create three new banks, to be sold to firms that don't at the moment do banking, raises some intriguing possibilities. Is this what A4e, with its Capitec Uk Ltd bank lying dormant, has been waiting for?

Just for laughs, there's a story in today's Sun about an A4e employee in Northumberland.