Mutualise Jobcentre Plus, says ACEVO's Asheem Singh in the Guardian
Published: Monday 11 August 2014 - 08:00
ACEVO's Director of Public Policy Asheem Singh writes in Guardian Public Leaders - mutualise Jobcentre Plus
See the original article here on Guardian Public Leaders.
Just over a third (36%) of jobseekers find a job through a jobcentre within six months – and then manage to keep that job for longer than that. Some jobcentres perform better than this, others markedly worse, regardless of the parlous state of the local job market. In many ways the experience of jobcentres remains almost entirely unchanged in decades, a sort of institutional version of a pack of Werther's Original. These are places where people go, wait, sign on, are referred on somewhere, or not, and the cycle continues. Even the logo, with its green, yellow and white colours and block sans serif font, is so very retro.
It might sound almost Panglossian to say, but it is probably time to at least try and change this. Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published its latest commissioning strategy. This is a difficult document to put out just before an election. The trick for civil servants is to try to work out how they can do what their current masters ask of them, while broadly producing something that any future government would be able to buy into.
This particular example is a paragon of non-partisanship, committing the government to a policy of more competition, more charities and social enterprises working in partnership to deliver employment services – and presumably the opposition too. It commits to social investment, essentially asking charities and social enterprises to take on more debt so as to get involved in these processes. Yet little has been said, either in this document or outside of it, about the retail end of the operation: the jobcentre. This is a missed opportunity; it is where real gains can be made and radical new ideas implemented with agreement from all sides.
Some wonks are beginning to wake up to the imbalance in Westminster policy thinking between functionality and design. It's about time: the touchpoints (to use a semi-technical term) of people's lives are where design consultants have been making money for years. Today Jobcentre Plus is one of the biggest touchpoints between people and the state, and the policy world is beginning to wake up to the potential.
Take for example a recent report from rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange. It recommends regressing the system to the pre-Blair era: separating the benefits assessment end of the jobcentre from the additional back to work services the modern Jobcentre Plus provides. This second set of services would then be given an independent life as a social enterprise and would jockey for attention in the mind of the beleaguered claimant with other providers.
The idea of splitting Jobcentre Plus back in two is tedious – one can imagine five years from now the hand-wringing of welfare reformists who will argue that the contributory principle was breached when benefits administration was separated from back to work services. But the idea of mutualising the jobcentre is an intriguing one. It reflects the ideas proposed by a number of thinkers, including that of my organisationAcevo in its 2012 David Miliband-led report on youth unemployment, 'The crisis we cannot afford', which argues the democratic design of an organisation is as important as the services it delivers.
Mutualisation has two virtues. First, it gives operational autonomy to the service being mutualised. This means that new services and products can be generated that are relevant to the local community. This might mean that a jobcentre plus could take on, say, online-based self-help services in an area with a younger population, while a more traditional face to face approach might work in areas with older populations. Different areas could be offered different sets of services depending on the existing skillsets of its workers.
Second, it gives workers at the Jobcentre Plus a stake in the service: an important principle of democratic accountability in the workplace. The Canal and River Trust is an interesting example. The government agency British Waterways was turned into a charitable trust and a company limited by guarantee in 2012, after a funding crisis left it with a £30m budget deficit. It is run by a board of trustees who are responsible for making sure the organisation's charitable objectives are met, and who are advised and overseen by a council of elected and nominated members. This collaborative management has increased transparency and accountability, but it has also helped the trust improve its operations, so that in 2013-14 they actually raised £5m more income than they had aimed to – and were then able to spend more on maintaining canals.
The jobcentre, pre and post-Blair, has largely been a functional place, a place of churn, where people sign on and try to leave as quickly as possible, only to find themselves waiting in line. A mutualised service is not appropriate in every context and requires a good deal of support. Crucially, it requires buy in from the workers who will make up the mutual to make it work. Even today there are a few examples of spin outs – the semi-constructed West Mercia and Warwickshire mutual in the probation service springs to mind – whose restructuring has been driven by skewed political and financial incentives which have run into difficulties as a result.
Get this right, however, and the possibilities are immense. Mutualisation would confer community ownership on organisations that could essentially be vibrant hubs of community life, places where people not only sign on for work or benefits, but enjoy other kinds of community-based services too, such as postal services. The wider point here is even more radical: to recalibrate the state's idea of the point of work in the life of the individual. No longer is work something the citizen has to procure, on their own, at any cost, simply in order to be validated. Rather, the process of getting work is wrapped in the living fabric of community life. This would be the sort of work that would perhaps make the Jobcentre Plus – retro or rebranded – the sort of place to while away some meaningful hours.
Asheem Singh is the director of public policy at Acevo