Monday, 31 January 2011

FT and PR

An interesting piece in the Financial Times reports that A4e approached Barnsley council with a proposal to use public money to create temporary jobs, on the lines of the Future Jobs Fund, which the government has just scrapped. Mark Lovell (Chief Exec of A4e) wants to create social enterprises to give the unemployed new skills. The leader of Barnsley council, Steve Houghton, says it just goes to show that there aren't any jobs. Whatever you think of the scrapping of the Future Jobs Fund, this move by A4e seems to be a somewhat cheeky way of trying to recreate it. The article says that other big providers are coming up with similar ideas. Clearly there are fears that the Work Programme isn't going to pay them, and Serco and Avanta have already said that they won't bid for every area, while Sarina Russo has said it won't bid at all.
Meanwhile Emma Harrison has signed up with PHA Media to run the PR to "take Emma's profile to the next level, sourcing high-profile opportunities to help support her role within the Working Families Everywhere scheme, as well as highlighting the other areas of her career."

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Yet another interview

I know it's tedious to keep reporting Emma Harrison's press interviews. They are simply PR exercises, with compliant journalists failing to do the research or ask the right questions. But there's another such interview in today's Yorkshire Post; and it helps us to see how the spin works.

The interviewer is Sarah Freeman. I have no idea what her area of expertise is, but all she has done is copy down some figures from the ONS (269,00 households where no one has ever worked - pause there for a moment. 25% of households in this country consist of one person. So this isn't quite the same as 269,000 "families" of mum, dad and half a dozen kids all sitting around doing nothing.) And right at the end of the article someone has stuck the latest unemployment figures. In between is the usual spiel from Mrs Harrison; her background, her zeal to get people back to work, the Family Champions scheme; and added to that, the Vox centres. To show that she's human she cites her 16-year-old dyslexic son. Now, a real journalist would, at some point, have brought some facts to the table. The FND results, for instance. Of course, I might be doing Ms Freeman a disservice, and it wasn't her idea to omit the hard questions. And it would be sexist to wonder why Harrison is so often interviewed by women. "Harrison is clearly on a mission," we're told. Oh yes, a PR mission.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Guardian article and Vox

I'd like to point you to an article in the Guardian's "Comment is free" section, by Arec Balrin. He sets out his experience, as a sufferer from autism, with A4e. As always with such articles, the comments which follow show the range of reactions, but it's well worth reading.

On the other hand, there's an article in the Sheffield Star about the opening of the new Vox centre which would have you believe that A4e invented the idea of special provision for difficult school children. "A4e chairman Emma Harrison says the centres have been so successful that local councils have started paying for children to attend because it is cheaper than trying to control them at school, find them when they are truanting or seeking other solutions," she says. The "other solutions" could be the Pupil Referral Units which have been operating up and down the country under the control of local authorities for years. They are staffed by experienced, specialist teachers and overseen by management committees which comprise councillors, local head teachers and representatives of the community. They are funded by the local council, and many of them get very good results. Harrison says Vox have got attendance up to "in some cases" 85%. That's normal for the PRUs. So why would councils want to abandon PRUs and pay to put kids into A4e provision? Only because it could work out cheaper. That's how creeping privatisation works.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Vox and meetings

If you don't read the Daily Express (and why would you?) you'll have missed Emma Harrison's Jobs Tips. Not to worry, you can read them on A4e's website. Your confidence in A4e's competence may be shaken, however, by the howler in the introduction - "ensuring your poised and ready for an interview". Anyone applying for a job would be well advised to do better than that on their CV.

A growing part of A4e's business are the Vox centres, which give skills training to children and young people who have been excluded from schools. Emma is opening the 10th such centre today, at Sheffield Wednesday football club. She seems to think that it's "a fascinating new model"; the private company stands the cost of setting up the institution and the local authority buys places in it. It is not new at all. Private companies running special schools, for instance, operate on exactly the same model. It doesn't look as if any of these centres have been inspected by Ofsted yet. Emma says she's not concerned about public sector cuts, and she may well be justified.

One company which has decided that the Work Programme is too big a risk is Sarina Russo, an Australian outfit. Despite being put on the framework they've announced that they are not going to bid for any of the contracts as prime contractor. They say that they support the payment model, but they only want to be sub-contractors. That's going to leave only a handful of companies, like A4e and Serco, which are willing to take the financial risk.

Ex-A4e employee Hayley Taylor who, in a few short months, rose to "international careers expert" has had a meeting with Chris Grayling. She says, "it was good to hear that the issues the unemployed face are being addressed, although it remains to be seen what the outcome will be." One wonders whether Grayling is meeting any of the unemployed.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Family Champions and that summit

That presentation by Emma Harrison at the UK Nordic Baltic Summit has been put online; at least, the slides have. Judging by the introduction - "Every family gets a Family Champion who sorts stuff out and gets jobs – holistically – directing all existing efforts and resources towards Families with a sense of purpose, working, independent and Helping Others" - it was big on ambition and capital letters. And we have some new jargon. "Holistically" is nice, but "poking" as a description of what agencies have been doing with troubled families is not. Still, Emma can fix it. The Family Champion is going to be "one holistic point of support" to turn 500 such families into "working families".
Perhaps there were questions after this presentation; we're not told. Someone might have asked about the qualifications needed by these Family Champions, the training they will receive, and their relationship with other agencies. Someone might have asked whether "working" is the same as "volunteering". Someone, indeed, might have raised the Flexible New Deal results.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Terrible results

We haven't anything yet about Emma Harrison's meeting on Tuesday with people from the Education Department. She hasn't mentioned it in her tweets, although she has talked about the reception at No. 10 for the Nordic Baltic MPs. I wonder if they talked about the figures for Flexible New Deal, which are out now for the period Oct 09 to Nov 10. I'm sure they'd have been impressed with the fact that of 315,000 people who started on the programme, 6% (that's right, 6%) got "sustained" i.e. long-term jobs. Short-term job outcomes weren't much better, at 10%. In the 5 regions where A4e had contracts they performed more or less the same as their competitors and their results were in line with the average. Worst was in central London with 9% short and 5% long-term jobs, while best was Cambridgeshire & Sussex, with 13% short and 8% long-term outcomes. (Remember, don't add the two percentages together. A short-term job turns into a sustained job.) No wonder there are worries about the Work Programme and its viability.
Is the publicity-hungry Emma Harrison going to be called on to explain these terrible results? Perhaps she would say that they will do better when they are allowed to interfere in the lives of "whole families".

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Emma and government

A small piece in today's Mail headed Back-to-work tsar to reveal campaign plan tells us that A4e's Emma Harrison is to "meet Department of Education officials this week to finalise details of her campaign to get 100,000 unemployed families working over the next five years." With some rather strange figures, she tells us how the government can save money and people can have better lives. Finally we learn that "Later this week Harrison will speak to nine foreign leaders at David Cameron's Nordic Summit in London to tell them how her campaign could work elsewhere."
What is most concerning about this is that, with the Work Programme contracts not yet out and nobody examining A4e's record, this woman has put herself forward as the national expert, and the government is conniving at that; she is being allowed to tout A4e's services to foreign leaders under Cameron's auspices, and the right wing press is helping her.
The dire Working Families Everywhere website tells us (with A4e's usual blithe disregard for correct English) that, "On 18th January, Emma will be meeting The Department for Education, shortly after with Local Authorities who have pledged their interest to be involved. During this meeting we will finalise the first stages of the Working Families Everywhere Campaign, led by Emma Harrison." It will be interesting to see which local authorities have fallen for this.

Sunday, 9 January 2011


In the privatisation of public services there are often periods like this, when some new contracts have yet to be given out and others are under threat. No new contracts are forthcoming from the majority of local authorities yet. They are desperately trying to cut chunks out of all their services. But the situation could well yield profits for A4e and the others, because it will seem cheaper to contract out than to pay your own staff. We know that this doesn't work in the long run, either for the employees or the public. But it does secure profits for the private companies for a fixed period, and when you're faced with impossible budget decisions that can seem like a good deal.

Most of the prime providers are advertising for "partners" in the Work Programme, as the government wants. A4e doesn't seem to be doing this, probably preferring to keep the dealings to themselves. Some of the voluntary sector organisations are agonising about whether they should engage with it at all. The real deals are being done with the banks which will finance the companies, and the question is whether the £400 - £600 "attachment fee" for each client will be enough to get them on board. Among many interesting aspects of the contracts will be how many of the existing FND providers get the new contracts in the areas in which they've been operating. My guess is all of them, because to do anything else would cost a lot of money in compensation.

CDG are still pushing the "Expert Volunteer Initiative", the plan to recruit an army of volunteer mentors for the unemployed. They have appointed as Chair of a working group Dr Mike Nussbaum, former chair of Volunteering England. They say that the initiative is designed "to complement the work currently carried out by welfare to work providers" but don't explain how this can sit alongside the payment of large sums of money to private companies.

Publicity for Emma Harrison seems confined to the Sheffield press at the moment. The Star says: "Unstoppable Emma Harrison is riding high with her ever-expanding welfare-to-work business A4e. But it's not all been brilliant news recently. She talks about the highs and lows of life at the top in tomorrow's Business Monthly." Has anyone seen this article?