Jobcentre Plus and ethnic minority customers
1 Feb 2011
Rose Martin, Research Officer
As difficult labour market conditions persist into 2011, Jobcentre Plus has an important role to play in helping to meet one of the government’s aspirations to provide ‘help for those who cannot work’ and ‘training and targeted support for those looking for work’. This is particularly the case for ethnic minority groups, who continue to face significant disadvantage in the labour market, both in terms of job entry and career progression. However, a recent study from IES has found that customer satisfaction with Jobcentre Plus services does not appear to be strongly linked to ethnicity. As such, the study suggests that ethnic minorities may benefit from an overall improvement in service delivery, rather than a differentiated approach.
The need for a more personalised and flexible service
Overall, our study found that ethnic minority customers tended to report experiences of using Jobcentre Plus that were similar to those of white British customers. Where differences did emerge, these were linked to customer group, (type of benefit being claimed), type of service used and individual customer preferences.
A recurrent theme in our findings is the inconsistency in Jobcentre Plus services with regard to the skills and attitude of the staff, and the extent to which the service is claimant-focused and personalised. Where our interviewees reported a positive experience with Jobcentre Plus, they noted that they had received personal attention and a tailored service to meet their specific needs. Customers often related this to face-to-face contact with an adviser – especially where there was an opportunity to build up and maintain a friendly relationship with the same adviser. Such repeat contact also avoided annoyances such as having to repeat information. Equally important for a positive experience was: easy access to support which explicitly catered for customers’ personal circumstances; information about childcare or additional financial support, access to Jobpoints, or access to appropriate training.
Conversely, less satisfied customers often felt rushed through their interaction with Jobcentre Plus staff and felt that this was process-driven rather than customer-focused, particularly with regard to Fortnightly Jobsearch Reviews (FJRs) and Work Focused Interviews (WFIs). Some customers felt simply that Jobcentre Plus advisers were too busy to provide attention; others felt more strongly that there was an attitude of disrespect towards the out of work among Jobcentre Plus staff.
Through all of our findings, the role of the adviser emerges as key in influencing customers’ experience of the service.
Ethnic minority customers’ experiences
The views discussed so far appear to be held fairly evenly across ethnic groups. So, does ethnicity matter at all when delivering Jobcentre Plus services?
Our study suggests it does, in two respects. First, our findings point to the need to raise awareness of Jobcentre Plus services to support those who may experience discrimination, bullying or other complaints against employers. Our study found very low levels of awareness of the support which Jobcentre Plus can offer in this respect, despite also finding that ethnic minority customers were more likely to report instances of perceived bullying in the workplace and unfair dismissal (although these instances were not explicitly linked to racial discrimination).
Second, we found that ethnic minority customers place particular value on face-to-face contact with Jobcentre Plus staff and also place slightly more emphasis than White British customers on the qualities of friendliness and politeness among staff.
At a time when Jobcentre Plus faces dealing with high numbers of unemployed people, it also faces the challenge of working within the constraints arising from public spending cuts. Further demands on advisers will also arise from benefit reform. Reassessments of Incapacity Benefit customers, for example, will result in more Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) WFIs and FJRs being carried out and also more JSA customers with health conditions. Delivering a more personalised service under these circumstances presents undeniable challenges.
However, the Department for Work and Pensions has already expressed a commitment to the principle of providing more flexibility in service delivery, and some approaches are already being explored by Jobcentre Plus through the Delegated Flexibility Pilots, and the Advisory Services of the Future training, which support the personalisation of adviser services. In addition, relatively cost-effective options for developing staff skills could be considered, such as the dissemination of good practice internally; mentoring and coaching, drawing on the expertise of experienced and skilled staff; and e-learning. Finally, it is worth considering that any additional resource implications of improving the quality of adviser-customer interactions would be offset by the longer-term net savings brought about by finding people work.
 Cabinet Office (2010), The Coalition: Our programme for government.
 Jobcentre Plus (2010), Jobcentre Plus Business Plan 2010 – 2011.
For more information on this work, please contact Jim Hillage at IES.