The Work Programme is a learning opportunity, not a cautionary tale

There are many sweeping statements that I can let slide, however factually dubious they may be. Indeed, those who know me would say I’m rather fond of them myself. However, one particularly sweeping statement in last week’s Third Sector editorial on the subject of Transforming Rehabilitation –  “Always in people’s minds is the cautionary tale of the Work Programme” –  needs just a little unpacking.

I will most willingly concede that in many minds the Work Programme is indeed a cautionary tale. The majority of the membership of the Employment Related Services Association, of which I am chief executive, is not-for-profit, and I have come across many examples where the programme has not been a good fit for charities. There are many reasons for that, including the lean overall financing of the programme; cautious trustees  concerned with the financial model; insufficient referrals to the scheme and concern about providing services to a mandated customer group.

However, there are now a significant number of charities who have made it work. Many of these organisations readily acknowledge the challenges they have faced, but they also say that much has been learned, that they’re now far more effective than they were at the programme’s start and that they’re making a surplus on the contracts overall.

For others who may not be involved in the Work Programme but have watched its progression with interest, it may be not so much a cautionary tale as a learning opportunity that should be effectively utilised to make the new Transforming Rehabilitation contracts work better for both services users and providers.

As a sector, employment support providers – many of whom are charities – were admittedly thrown in at the deep end with the Work Programme.  This was a payment-by-results scheme, launched during a time of austerity; built partly on theory and ironed out in practice. Yet the programme has survived and has helped nearly 600,000 long-term unemployed job seekers enter work to date. Targets are being met, including for those on employment and support allowance; though more still needs to be done.

Work Programme providers, both prime and subcontractors, have found out a thing or two that may not have been obvious before the programme started. One of the key things is that subcontractors have more power and flexibility then they may think. On the Work Programme, subcontractors have negotiated with their primes pre- and post- contract, ensuring it will work for them and sometimes taking the decision to walk away if it won’t. Organisations have become more creative in their work, partnering with other providers such as housing associations to join up funding pots and create jobs; and many also use organisations like ERSA to ensure that their voice is heard by government, so that current and future programmes continue to improve.

There’s also much learning for government. First, the commissioner –in this case the Ministry of Justice – has a duty of care towards the entire market, not just its prime contractors. It should not be a case of out of sight, out of mind, and there needs to a be clear, strong feedback loop from subcontractors to government.

Secondly, charities in the contracts should also be allowed to speak their minds: no unfair clauses, please. Next, success is going to be all about joining up services. A key lesson from the Work Programme (though this will have been obvious to many) is that we need to bring health and skills budgets into the picture, particularly for those on ESA.

Finally, these contracts are experiments. As such, things will go right and some things will go wrong. When they do go wrong, the government should adapt, not plough on regardless. That way we’re likely to get better outcomes for service users and a healthy cross-sector market of providers.

Kirsty McHugh is chief executive of ERSA