Friday, 28 June 2013

They've got away with it

It must be congratulations all round at the DWP.  The Work Programme results are terrible but hardly anyone has noticed, because the raw numbers are impressively big, and a week of spinning has convinced the largely gullible media that failure is actually success.  Well done, chaps.
But these are the figures (in percentages):

Why are there no headlines this time around about "its worse than doing nothing", as indeed it is for more than half the providers?  Leaving ESA aside for the moment, the minimum contracted figures - what the providers contracted to deliver - were only a tiny amount above the dead weight figure - what the DWP assumed would happen with no intervention at all, which means no money spent.  But half the companies couldn't even deliver that.  For JSA 18-24 the wooden spoon goes to A4e in South Yorkshire, which managed just 15.5%.  Yet Mark Hoban says, "The improvement in performance over the past year has been profound and the scheme is getting better and better."
The failure with ESA is inescapable, and some publications, like the Independent, choose to headline that.  But it's been spun for a week that this is down to lack of "resources", i.e. those on ESA need more money spent on them than the programme provides.  The excuses are somewhat tortured.  An outfit calling itself Inclusion (it describes itself as a "cutting-edge thought leader" but doesn't say where its funding comes from) wants to move the goalposts and take the economy into account.  It recognises that poor performance means less income so even poorer performance.  Another think-tank, the Social Market Foundation (equally cagey about where its funding comes from) says, confusingly, "Poor performance against the DWP's minimum levels cannot be taken as evidence that providers are doing a bad job or that the scheme offers poor value for money," because we don't know how a different approach would have fared.  The ERSA, the mouthpiece for the providers, declares that the government's way of measuring performance is wrong and that the targets should take the state of the economy into account.
The Financial Times tells us that "several providers have been put on watch for having their contract terminated."  12 contracts, they say, have been put under a "performance improvement notice".  But I would be very surprised if any providers do actually lose contracts.  In another piece the FT points out that the WP is "cheap and it isn't working".  The bidding process meant that companies said they could do it "at a lower cost than was probably wise", and so the profits aren't coming in which would enable them to spend enough to be successful.  It's that negative spiral which those actually experiencing the WP know only too well.  The article concludes with the opinion that Osborne is shifting money from the WP to the jobcentres.  Yet JCP has suffered big staff cuts recently.
In real business, as opposed to outsourcing, contracts have a legal reality.  They come with penalty clauses, punishing the contractor for failure to deliver.  In this business, the companies know that the minimum contractual requirements mean little or nothing.  The likes of A4e are used to missing their targets and still making loads of money.  The government has an interest in pretending that failure is, in fact, success.  When the model is payment by results (but not really) the contractors make less money; but the casualties are not the businesses but the people who have not received the service.
It is nonsense to blame the economic situation.  If the number of unemployed people who can get back into work depends on the state of the economy (and it probably does) then what is the point of a scheme like the Work Programme?  The companies are adding little or nothing to what would be happening anyway.
However, it appears that Iain Duncan Smith has got away with it.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Work Programme figures - fail!

The figures are out.  There's the press release here, but you'll have to search for the salient points.  Those are:

  • "For JSA claimants aged 18 to 24, providers averaged 31.9% into sustained work in year two of the scheme against contracted levels of 33%
  • for JSA claimants aged 25 or over, providers averaged 27.3% into sustained work in year two against contracted levels of 27.5%. This is a big improvement from year one, when no provider reached their contracted level of 5.5% for either group."
So it hasn't hit its target.  

The actual stats are here.  I haven't had a chance to look at them properly yet, so examine them for yourselves.  Let's hope the media do a proper job on them.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Another kick at jobseekers

Osborne thinks he will save £350m by shaving a bit off the unemployed's entitlement to benefits.  At the moment you can't claim for the first three days out of work.  The plan now is that you won't get anything for the first seven days.  (See the summary of the measures on the BBC news site.)  Osborne says, "Those first seven days should be spent looking for work and not looking to sign on."
"Jobseekers," says the BBC, "will also be required to have a CV before claiming benefits."  It's Planet Tory again.  Many people will not be able to produce a CV without help (even if that's just help to get it on a computer and print it) so what is the point?
And "about half" of jobseekers - those judged (by whom?) to be not doing enough to find work - will have to sign on weekly.  There's no mention of extra resources in the jobcentres to cope with this.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

"An incendiary idea" - or vicious and stupid?

You have to hand it to the Daily Mail; when you think it can't get any worse, it does.  Today's gem is an article by Mark Littlewood headlined "Why Osborne must publish the names of every benefits claimant - and how much we pay them; An incendiary idea to save on our £500m A DAY welfare bill".
You might already have spotted the first clue to the flaws in his argument from this headline; the use of the words "we" and "our".  He develops this, summarised in three quotations from article:

  • "The amount we now spend on welfare is jaw-dropping.  The average household is taxed to the tune of £8,000 every year to finance the State's programme of handouts."
  • "Taxpayers have a right to know exactly who is claiming what and how much they are getting."
  • "Many people now have a third of their wages - or even more - confiscated at source by Revenue & Customs.  The biggest item this cash is then spent on is welfare.  You have a right to know who is receiving it."
It's the language of "us and them".  Personally, I don't know which category Littlewood would put me into.  I am retired and receive a state pension.  (He includes pensioners in his scheme; is my state pension a "handout"?)  I'm also a taxpayer.  But then, the majority of benefits claimants have been taxpayers, and will be again.  Most of us are both claimants and taxpayers at some points in our lives.  That's what a welfare system is for; you pay in when you can and draw out when you can't.  But the Mail has been tireless in helping successive governments to draw a line round all benefits claimants and separate them from the "hard-working families" beloved by politicians.  For someone like Littlewood, it seems to make sense.  After Oxford he worked for various organisations including the Liberal Democrats, and is now Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank which is very secretive about its sources of funding.  He can't see himself as ever being in the position of having to claim benefits.  Like all his class, he considers himself far superior to all of us scroungers.
What about his central thesis; that there should be a publicly accessible database of what benefits everyone gets?  No problems with that, surely?  It's not naming and shaming, is it?  Two more quotations:

  • "Anyone ashamed to claim money from the State shouldn't be claiming it."
  • "Surely no one needs to worry about violent retribution against claimants.  The British are far too reasonable to start taking up pitchforks and burning torches and assaulting imagined benefits cheats.  We are generous and fair-minded people."  (Surely this is tongue-in-cheek!)
Leave aside the fact that there are many, many elderly people who are not claiming the benefits to which they are entitled because they are ashamed.  That's not important compared to the fun we could all have looking up the incomes of our neighbours.
It isn't going to happen, and I suspect that Littlewood and the Mail know that.  The point of the article is to further demonise anyone who is dependent on the welfare system.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The view from Planet Tory

I'm not a Conservative voter.  (In fact, I'm politically homeless at the moment.)  I don't routinely read stuff on the Conservative Home site - too depressing.  But one blog piece on there popped up in the alerts which is worth reading for the insight it gives into the Tory mindset when it comes to welfare.  It's badly written and nobody has bothered to proofread it.  But when you get past that, you see an attitude which is blind to reality.  It takes as its starting point the ERSA figures published in a pre-emptive strike this week, and the writer, someone called Harry Phibbs, swallows them whole.  The WP "has certainly made progress", he says.  Well, we'll see.  He insists that the programme is "good value for the taxpayer".  "There is an incentive to innovate, to cater to the needs of the individual," he says, oblivious of the fact that this simply hasn't happened.  But "even more important is reality [sic] that for those able to work sitting at home on benefits is ceasing to be an option".  He misses the irony here; that the WP was supposed to solve this problem.  No, "Those who don’t find jobs via the Work Programme will go through a Community Work Programme where they work 30 hours a week for 26 weeks to contribute to their community. For claimants refusing to participate, benefits will be withdrawn for three months for the first offence, six months for the second, and three years for the third."  He is conflating a number of things here, but relishes the punishment to be dished out to these idle people.  His proudest boast, however, and the one displaying the greatest ignorance, is that 150,000 people, and rising, disappeared from the unemployed figures rather than go on the WP.  If this piece is a sign of Tory ideology triumphing over reality, the comments underneath it show that there are plenty of people know the truth.
But that doesn't include Fraser Nelson.  He's the editor of the Spectator magazine and one of the BBC's favourite journalists.  On Thursday he had an article in the Telegraph in which he tried, ridiculously, to show that the Tories are fighting for the "working classes" while Labour would abandon them.  While Nelson is a better writer than Mr Phibbs, his conclusions on welfare are very similar.  The WP seems to be working now.  There's a curious statement that IDS has decided to "hire more private companies to help the long-term unemployed".  That is news to me.  Then the usual laxity with figures starts.  "There are more in employment than ever before."  Of course there are, the population is bigger than ever before.  And of the 1.2 million referred to the WP, 321,000 have found work.  That's the headline ERSA figure, as we know, which is likely to be thoroughly misleading.  Nelson has examples of WP success stories - examples provided by A4e.  An ex-railwayman from Glasgow who got nowhere with the Jobcentre but, "with proper help on job-hunting", is now fixing computers.  And another man who, after 16 years out of work, is now a street-cleaner.  Good for both of them.  Any success is to be applauded.  But what does that prove?  Nelson says that these two stories "are the work of A4e, which was vilified when it said it had caught some of its employees fiddling the figures to hit targets".  Well, there was rather more to it than that, Mr Nelson.  
This, of course, is why the government allowed, or encouraged, the ERSA to put out the headline figures a week before the true statistics.  The myths can take hold, and the media can get bored before the details are published.  And it's these myths which permeate the consciousness of the government and its supporters.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Desperately spinning

Last night's BBC news item on the Work Programme figures was a response to the officially-sanctioned spin on the latest performance data, not to be released for another week.  This morning a few of the papers have picked up the ERSA's figures.  No one seems bothered that this is all authorised by the DWP, as with the first year's figures, to extract the best publicity and deflect attention from next week's reality.
It appears that the best that can be said is that around 27% of those who have started the WP have found work.  And it's better for the under-25s, at 40%.  But what does that mean?  These are not "sustained" jobs, the outcomes for which the providers get paid.  They could be very temporary jobs, even single shifts.  So the official figures are going to be much worse.
The scope for spin is immense.  The Independent, which has a thoughtful piece, still manages to say silly things like "321,000 (27 per cent) started a job after being found one."  They are unaware, apparently, that many of those jobs will owe nothing whatever to the WP provider; no one found them the job, they found it for themselves.  But the paper still goes for the downside of the figures - three quarters of people on the WP haven't started a job.
The Mirror, naturally, emphasises the negative, that 900,000 sent on the WP haven't started any work.  They end with a quote from A4e.  "A spokeswoman for A4e, one of the biggest welfare-to-work providers, insisted that the figures showed 'a marked improvement'.  'It is gaining momentum,' the spokeswoman added."
The Financial Times tries to be even-handed, suggesting that "the scheme may be starting to deliver results".  They quote Kirsty McHugh of the ERSA maintaining that "the improving economy and the fact that providers had simply got better at helping clients had contributed to the stronger performance".
So all we really know is that around 27% of WP clients have had some sort of job start; and that the figure is higher for the under-25s but much lower for those on ESA.  (Can someone remind me of the projected dead-weight figure for Year 2, please.)  It all sounds rather feeble.  Yet Iain Duncan Smith and his team are happy for this preliminary spinning to take place.  Perhaps we will now all ignore the true figures when they are released without fanfare next week.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

STOP PRESS - contradictory figures

There has just been a confusing item on the BBC news.  It said that a third of people who have been on the Work Programme (I think they said for a year or more) have started a job.  But only one in ten of those with medical problems have started a job.  And the providers say that the money just isn't there in the scheme to help them.  Cue a brief clip of Labour's Liam Byrne saying that three quarters of people on the WP haven't even started a job.  And then Andrew Sells (who was captioned as a WP adviser but appears to be a businessman - see here) saying that the WP was more successful every month.  An employee of a WP provider (I didn't catch which one) was asked why the companies took the contracts if they knew there wasn't enough money in them, but he was otherwise treated sympathetically.

Now the item has appeared appeared on the BBC news website.  It has Kirsty McHugh of the ERSA (the providers' trade association) saying that money needs to be diverted from other budgets.  But I'm no clearer about the figures.

A4e gives its opinion

Some time back people told us here that they had encountered Jobcentre advisers in A4e offices, accessing their personal details alongside the A4e "advisers".  Now we know why.  And we know A4e's thinking on how they can get more fully involved with JCP's business.
A4e often submits written evidence to parliamentary committees; it's not clear whether that's by invitation or not.  The latest document was submitted to the Work and Pensions Select Committee earlier this month, and can be read here.  The committee is holding an inquiry into the role of JCP in "the reformed welfare system".    A4e's document stresses first how it has supported "tens of thousands of people into work" and worked closely with JCP.  Then it talks about how it has worked with JCP over a number of different schemes.  "A better functioning JCP," it says, "results in better services for A4e's customers."
That sounds innocuous enough; but it ignores the fact that it was the outsourcing of New Deal in 2006 which caused intense problems for JCP, including large-scale staff redundancies and a souring of relationships between JCP staff and the providers.  It also uses that totally misleading word, "customers".
There's a glitch in para 1.2, with a sentence repeated; rubbish proof-reading by somebody.  But paras 1.2 to 1.4 tell us that every claimant should have an initial assessment and those with the "biggest barriers to employment" should be put on the Work Programme immediately so that they can receive the "depth of tailored service" which A4e provides.  
The notion of "barriers" permeates this document, enabling them to play the government's tune of unemployment being the fault of the jobless.  Paras 2.0 to 2.2 detail how A4e wants JCP to be the "gateway" to the services provided by the private sector, and the need, as they see it, to integrate (or join up, in their terminology) with the services of "GP surgeries, housing associations and other local authority services".  In pursuit of this integration A4e has been locating JCP advisers in A4e offices and vice versa.  "This co-location has improved communications between our organisations", improved data sharing and reduced paperwork.  They are going to do more of it.
Finally, they want JCP to learn from A4e how to engage with employers, citing the company's links with the Co-operative Group in the North West.  "JCP should attempt a more strategic approach by working to ensure that they are helping claimants into growth industries while directing them away from occupational areas in decline. A ‘one size fits all’ approach limits effectiveness and as we know through delivering the Work Programme, it is vital that JCP has the capacity to strategically react to different employers, of different sizes, in different locations."  This will anger a lot of Jobcentre managers, who know the difficulties of getting claimants into any sort of job, and don't need advice from the likes of A4e.
We hear in this document some familiar ambitions from A4e, and some new ones.  They haven't directly said, "Outsource the jobcentres so that we can bid for the contracts", but the logic is inescapable.  In their scenario, what would be the point of JCP at all, except as a signing-on point, and with Universal Credit even that role can go.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Another one bites the dust

Another charity has had to pull out of the Work Programme, according to an article on the Guardian website.  The Creative Society was set up in 2009 and was successful in finding work for young people.  Under the WP it became part of A4e's supply chain.  A4e liked their training programme so much that they "used it as a model of good practice".  But now they've had to quit because they weren't getting enough referrals to make it sustainable.  The work has dried up.  The writer, Martin Bright, talks about a "massive, unwieldy private-sector bureaucracy".  The charity has survived by working outside the WP, accessing European Social Fund money.  But Bright points out the "terrible irony" that charities like his are already having to mop up after the WP, with the Jobcentres sending them people who have finished the Work Programme.
It was widely predicted that this would happen, but the Work Programme contracts contain no way of ensuring that the sub-contractors get referrals.
But let's not be despondent.  HR Magazine reports that at a recent conference Mark Hoban said that, "The Work Programme has given hope to those written off by society".  Reading on, he is obviously stuck determinedly in the mindset that those who are still out of work have "complex barriers", suggesting that they are ex-offenders or come from "worklessness" areas.  In other words, it's their fault, not the result of what few jobs are available going to those who have been out of work for the shortest time.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Exit Report

This is something which could only have been dreamed up in an office in Whitehall or Westminster by people whose connection to those it affects is non-existent.  It's the Exit Report now required by the DWP on claimants leaving the Work Programme from the providers.  Here's the memo.  
If you've ever had to get a reference from a previous employer you'll know that such references are now usually very brief and factual; so-and-so worked here from date to date as a whatever.  There will be no judgement as to your character - too risky.  Even teachers these days are wary of what they put in a child's report, and they are qualified professionals who know the child very well.  But the DWP wants somebody working for a WP provider like A4e, someone who may well have no qualifications at all, to pass judgement on their alumni.  They want JCP to be provided with "an insight to the participant" (yes, I know it doesn't make sense - perhaps they mean "into" - but they've written it twice).  Here's what's required:

"Please state below any further information which will provide Jobcentre Plus with an insight to the participant, include for example:
• Employability – your opinion on the participants employment prospects, the type of employment which might be most appropriate.
• Attitude – any changes in attitude and background you have noticed whilst having worked with the participant for 2 years and any known reasons for these changes.
• Barriers to employment – any barriers that you have seen the participant overcome / are still to be addressed / have arisen whilst on Work Programme. Any health conditions or substance dependency the participant may have.
• Compliance – the level of compliance you have seen from the participant, including any possible reasons you might consider to be behind this behaviour and which may be useful in determining further support for the participant.
Any other information you feel might be useful to Jobcentre Plus and give an insight to the participant."

This is very, very dangerous.  It asks for subjective judgements which an employee of a WP provider is not qualified to make, into someone's attitudes and behaviour.  It specifically asks that employee to give an "opinion", to have "noticed" something, to "consider", even, heaven help us, to "feel".  And the claimant has no right to dispute those opinions.
Claimants should ensure that they get a copy of the report (quite rightly, they are not being sent out in the post).  Make sure that the adviser name is filled in on the form and legible, so that an individual can be held to account for what has been written.  If there is anything negative with which you disagree, make that clear to the Jobcentre and seek advice from the CAB as to how you can challenge it.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

A4e and the government

The latest edition of Private Eye has shown once again the unhealthy relationship between A4e (and the other Work Programme primes) and the government.  They have documents released under FoI relating to a meeting which Chris grayling had last July with A4e directors.  At that point it was already clear, or should have been, that the WP was failing, and the publicity around A4e had been terrible.  But Grayling tells them, "In six months it will be all forgotten," and that he's grateful for what they're doing.  Grayling was replaced by Mark Hoban, who was similarly congratulatory at a meeting with Maximus in September.  The article continues: "The most revealing document, a 'short feedback' email, says Hoban wants Maximus' views on 'how we "sell" the Work Programme'."
Hoban has since made stern noises about tackling under-performance on the WP.  But, as the Eye points out, this is indicative of the fact that the government is more concerned with covering up the failures than securing value for money.
One important link with government for A4e was Jonty Olliff-Cooper, and he has gone.  The only publication to have picked up this fact is the Guardian, with a diary piece by Hugh Muir.  He points out that Cooper used to be "assistant to eccentric [Tory] strategy guru Steve Hilton".  Muir seems to be suggesting that Cooper has departed because the WP figures, due out shortly, are going to be terrible, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's clearing his path to a seat in parliament.  Nor would I be surprised if his position became untenable after his appallingly ill-judged tweets.  His going leaves one strong link between A4e and government, however.  After the meltdown last year and Emma Harrison's departure, the company hired the PR consultants Quiller, which includes George Bridges, "a pal of Chancellor George" as Muir puts it.  This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, and Jonty confirmed that in a tweet not long ago.  But Quiller is still there.
Outsourcing by government is not a straightforward business relationship.  There are mutual interests, which are not necessarily those of the people who ultimately pay the bills - us.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Those who work in the sector

Those who have followed this blog for some time will be aware of my attitude towards people who work in the w2w sector.  I don't allow any disparaging comments about them either individually or in general.  There are a number of reasons for that.  One is that, as someone who used to work in the business myself (although not for any of the primes and not recently), I know that the vast majority are decent human beings trying to do the best job they can.  It's not their fault.  Of course, there are people who are probably in the wrong job; and clients who have to deal with them will get angry and upset.  But that is true anywhere, and not a reason for denigrating all of them.  So I will not use this blog to insult or accuse staff.
Secondly, some employees and ex-employees have been enormously helpful to me; as providers of inside information, or as knowledgeable people who could explain things to me and others when I clearly didn't know what I was talking about.
From time to time staff have tried to engage with the blog by being critical of me or of the people who post here.  Usually I will allow that, if it's making a contribution to the discussion.  Most of them, however, mistake the purpose of what I do, which is to follow a particular company, and to look critically at the outsourcing business in this sector.  They want to tell us how wrong we are.  Some even want to sneer at people who are out of work, and tell them that it's their fault.  Fine, but there's at least one forum, the Indus Delta site, which is for professionals in the industry.  Or, of course, they could start their own site.  Here, we're not about a "balanced discussion" when that means giving equal space to people who want to praise the business and those involved in it, particularly whilst patronising or insulting their opponents.  So don't bother.

Finally, links to three articles to which I'll return in the next day or two; the New Statesman, the Scottish Daily Record, and the Independent.  

Friday, 7 June 2013

Jonty leaves A4e

Some time ago an anonymous tip told me that Jonty Olliff-Cooper was leaving A4e, but nobody could find out whether it was true or not.  But today, thanks to another anonymous tip, we have confirmation.  The website BrandRepublic tells us that:

"Jonty Olliff-Cooper has left back-to-work training provider A4e, where he was director of policy and strategy.  According to an A4e spokesman, Olliff-Cooper resigned and has decided to take a few months off before starting his next role.  Olliff-Cooper declined to comment."

Since I have no other information than that, I also decline to comment.  Except to say that I wonder whether his infamous tweets had anything to do with it.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Sanctioned? Then starve

The sanctions story naturally generated a lot of interest.  This might rile you even more.  It's one of those stories that make you wonder, at first, whether it could actually be a wind-up.  But no.
Left Foot Forward reports that Hounslow Community FoodBois a partnership between the local council and tenants' and residents' groups.  It's chaired by a Labour councillor, Steve Curran.  All well and good, you might think.  But specifically excluded from eligibility are those who are "under sanctions from the Jobcentre".    They, presumably, are the undeserving poor, who've brought it on themselves and can therefore starve, along with their kids.  Oh, and those who are "in constant difficulties due to chaotic lifestyles" are also ineligible.  They are undeserving too.
LFF say they have contacted the Foodbox but have not had an answer.  It would be interesting to hear the justification.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Sanctioned? - tell the local paper

One of those stories which crops up with increasing frequency appeared in the Nottingham Post on Saturday.  A man on the Work Programme with A4e found himself being "sanctioned" after he rescheduled an appointment.  I would like one point cleared up, but otherwise it's a familiar tale.  The man found that the council wanted to check his house on the same day as his "employability course" appointment, so he changed the latter.  (This is the thing I'm not 100% sure about, but the piece does say that he rescheduled the appointment.  Did he tell A4e before or after the event?)  Whichever, he was left destitute when his benefit was stopped.  The paper contacted the DWP, and it's been re-instated.
The DWP's response is the usual guff about "they can ask for that decision to be reviewed", without explaining how someone is meant to live meanwhile.  A4e "refused to comment but insisted its role is simply to inform Jobcentre Plus when and why an appointment was missed, not judge the validity of the claim".  And that, strictly speaking, is true.  If he didn't turn up and only informed A4e of the reason after the event, then it's a "sanction doubt".  But if he told them in advance, and the appointment was rescheduled, then there is no earthly reason except carelessness for the doubt to be raised.  The original appointment can be taken off the system, surely?
Anyway, it's certainly worth telling your local paper if you think you've been wrongly punished.