Jean, a 45-year-old mother of one disabled son, Jack, recently attended her first meeting with her Jobcentre Plus adviser. After negotiating her way past the security guard she met a young man ‘half my age’ who decided, after a quick chat, that Jean was lacking self-esteem. Jean – long-time chair of her tenants and residents association, stalwart of her local community, Olympic torchbearer – was referred onto a confidence-building course run by an external provider. She didn’t think she could refuse so signed up for six weeks.
Meanwhile, Jean’s Jobseeker’s allowance payments had been delayed, necessitating several increasingly desperate calls with phone line operators either stubbornly refusing or unable to help, an application for emergency support on which she had to record in painful detail her and Jack’s every need, and ultimately recourse to friends to borrow money. Walking everywhere to save on bus fares, making sure Jack was fed so sometimes going without, and falling behind for the first time on rent, Jean found it ‘almost too much – wearing me down’. She nonetheless dutifully attended every motivational workshop.
Jean’s story – repeated up and down the country – is a graphic illustration of what Ed Miliband described in his speech last week: public services that can wield power unaccountably, working against people not with them, often with the involvement of uncaring private companies. He talked about education and health, but his arguments apply just as strongly, if not more so, in employment support services, which pay almost no regard to voice, power, contribution or accountability; the product perhaps of an underlying attitude that says people should be grateful for what they get.
What might an alternative look like? Participle – the pioneering design agency rethinking public services who have, among much else, inspired much of the recent focus on ‘relational welfare’ – have developed an employment support network Backr, which aims to build networks both online and offline between people with and without jobs creating a community oriented around support. Here are a few more ideas:
1) Start on the front foot: In some social care settings people aren’t assigned an adviser or forced in front of the first one who’s free, but choose who they’d like to support them. At your first visit you would meet three advisers for 5 minutes each and choose who you’d like to work with; setting the tone that you’re trusted to make decisions and are be confident enough to choose.
2) Stay positive: One social care provider agrees a very simple plan with every person right at the beginning. It’s written jointly by the individual and their adviser and only has four sections: ‘I can; I am; I will; I want’. It starts with identifying strengths not ‘needs’ and includes a commitment to action as well as an expectation of services to be provided.
3) Join in: Run employment support agencies as customer mutuals, where every new person seeking support is automatically offered the chance to become a member with a stake in the business. Tapping into the powerful networks of people who have already found jobs, not just through an informal volunteering arrangement but a structure that ensures the organisation stays responsive and accountable to the people who use it.
4) Pass it on: Everyone who gets a job is asked to become a mentor for someone who has just started looking, sharing skills and contacts but just as importantly empathising with the difficulties and frustrations of job hunting. Similarly, matching up current jobseekers to work with each other, would build mutual trust rather than the mutual suspicion that pervades interaction at the Jobcentre.
5) Choose your provider: personal budgets are accepted as an important part of adult social care – why not introduce the same in employment support? Instead of being dispatched to your local prime contractor when you join the work programme, you could be assigned a budget to spend how you like – perhaps on ESOL lessons, on confidence-building if that’s what you think you need or a new qualification in your field or to pay an employer to give you some experience. These could be agreed – as they are in social care – jointly with statutory staff to ensure they have a good chance of succeeding.
6) Get out more: Run an employment support agency integrated within a popular community setting out of hours as well as during the day, so that some people are in there for employment support but others are just there to meet friends, each bringing with them a network of potential opportunities. Popular enough that people return even once they’ve got a job so that others benefit from their newfound networks.
Some of these could be delivered immediately but most would require an overhaul of our current commissioning and delivery systems where 12 months support from Jobcentre Plus (for the majority) is followed by referral to large, mostly private sector prime providers. Local authorities are probably capable of coordinating services every bit as confidence-sapping as our centrally-run institutions, but devolving all commissioning of employment support to local government – more accountable to local citizens, more flexible, better linked to local civil society and employers – must stand a better chance of driving the kind of change needed.
For Jean and hundreds of thousands like her the unintended consequence of the delivery of the benefits system is that she ends up less likely to get a job; can Miliband’s vision for public services turn this around?
Will Horwitz works for an east London charity, helps out at Changing London and writes in a personal capacity
Photo: Marin Nikolov
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