The Work Programme: what's inside the Black Box?

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2013

Employment Studies Issue 17

Becci Newton, Senior Research Fellow

Becci NewtonThe Work Programme is a new, integrated welfare-to-work programme, which was implemented across Great Britain in June 2011. It is commissioned through private and voluntary sector contractors and is designed to provide support to long-term unemployed and inactive people to assist them to gain work. IES is leading the consortium[1] that is evaluating the programme and has recently published a first, interim report which offers some insight into its operation.

In the longer term, the evaluation will have wider policy implications and is likely to generate interest across government, not simply within the welfare-to-work policy arena. This is because the programme is the largest UK experiment to date that uses a contractedout, payment-by-results approach to the delivery of public services. It is likely to be the precursor to similar developments elsewhere in public policy – indeed we are already seeing examples of such initiatives in criminal justice and care services. As a consequence, the operation of the programme is generating massive interest in news and media.

To understand the results of the research that has been undertaken so far, it is important to understand what it is the Work Programme is aiming to achieve and the key facets of its design.

The core objectives for the Work Programme are to: move more unemployed and inactive people into work, reduce the average time they spend on benefits, and increase the average time those gaining work spend in employment. It is also tasked with narrowing the gap between disadvantaged groups and everyone else in respect of gaining employment and time spent in employment, and with contributing to reducing the number of workless households.

The programme design is based on some key elements, including:

  • A prime-provider approach: the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contracts with a single provider (known as the prime) which, in turn, commissions and manages a supply chain of subcontracted providers (end-to-ends and spot providers[2]) in order to deliver the Work Programme contract.
  • Outcome-based funding: incorporating the following:
    • A small payment on ‘attachment’ (when an individual enters the Work Programme; this will be phased out) with further, larger payments triggered by ‘job outcome’ (after an individual has been in work for between 13 and 26 weeks) and ‘sustainment’ (once an individual has remained in work for between 17 and 30 weeks).
    • Differential payments with outcomes among harder-to-help groups paid at higher rates. This aims to tackle ‘creaming’ and ‘parking’ activity among providers, where effort and resources are concentrated on individuals who can be helped most quickly and/or cheaply.
    • Ongoing performance competition through ‘market share shifting’, with better-performing providers being allocated a larger number of claimants, and the poorer-performing providers (who remain above the minimum quality threshold) receiving fewer claimants.
  • Minimum service prescription known as the ‘black box’ approach, to allow providers flexibility to decide what will best help individuals into sustainable work. This in part aims to encourage providers to develop tailored solutions for individuals, and through this stimulate innovation in delivery.
  • Larger, longer contracts (five to seven years in length) on the basis that greater market stability will facilitate the development of provider capacity and expertise and encourage investment to support innovation in service delivery.

The evaluation, which is being completed between 2011 and 2015, is examining the way in which the Work Programme is commissioned, how it is delivered and the experiences and outcomes among those receiving support. The first, interim, report focused on delivery, and explored the experiences of staff and individuals. This article highlights some key themes emerging from the analysis, specifically: the extent and nature of personalisation in the programme, the dominant approach used to deliver support, and evidence of creaming and parking behaviour among providers.

Procedural personalisation has taken root

The early evidence suggests that the Work Programme is at least partly achieving a personalised service. This personalisation is largely procedural, in that there is an emphasis on building up personal and respectful relationships between advisers and individuals, and making use of tools such as assessment and action planning, which involve some individualisation. These meetings between advisers and individuals, along with job searches and employability support, are the mainstay of delivery.

More substantive personalisation is far less evident thus far. This personalisation might be demonstrated through individuals experiencing significantly different, possibly specialised, services tailored to their needs and designed to address their personal barriers to work. While it is too early for the evaluation to attribute reasons for this, there is some indication that cost constraints are limiting the development of substantive personalisation in the programme.

Work first is the dominant approach to delivery

A work-first approach, which focuses on job search and related activities such as CV preparation, job applications, and interviewing training, dominates delivery at present. This may be unsurprising, since there is an extensive international evidence base for the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of this. The work-first provision is frequently delivered through the ‘in-house’ resources of the endto- end providers. An end-to-end provider is responsible for an individual’s case throughout their two years on the Work Programme and all end-to-ends deliver out-of-work support. Once an individual gains work, some end-toends hand their case to an in-work support provider. There is, however, little evidence of the referral of individuals from end-to-ends to specialist support or training.

Other approaches to delivery are much less common; these would include human capitalbased approaches and approaches to address the full range of other barriers to work that individuals may exhibit. In both instances, this view is supported by a lack of referral among end-to-ends to specialist support and/or training available through the spot providers.

Again there is suggestion that resource constraints are influencing this trend, as when end-to-ends do refer individuals to specialist provision, they tend to select sources that are available at no cost. H4>Hard to avoid a conclusion that creaming and parking is taking place

There are suggestions in the data that providers are engaging in creaming and parking behaviour, despite the differential payment regime that aimed to disincentivise this. Providers routinely classify participants according to their assessed distance from work, and provide more intensive support (at least as measured by frequency of contact with advisers) to those who are judged the most ‘job-ready’. Those assessed as hardest-to-help have more infrequent contact with advisers, and little likelihood of referral to specialist support that might help address their specific barriers to work.

What is unclear is whether this seeming creaming and parking is driven by an explicit strategy or a ‘needs must’ response to the unexpectedly high volumes of individuals without complex or multiple barriers to work who are entering the programme. However, it is possible that ‘less does not mean worse’. For example, the adviser meetings for some harder-to-help individuals are longer and more in-depth than for other groups.

Need for a watching brief

The evaluation continues over the next 18 months and subsequent stages of research will enhance this preliminary, qualitative evidence. Further qualitative research to explore programme delivery will be conducted with Jobcentre Plus, individuals and providers. Surveys of individuals and providers will allow an examination of the scale and intensity of the findings. In combination, the research will provide the evidence base for a fuller, more robust assessment of the Work Programme’s operation and the policy implications arising.

It will be critical to continue to track personalisation in the Programme and the effects of this on individuals’ experiences. It will also be fundamental to understand how far the work-first approach is supportive of the range of individuals present in the Work Programme population or whether more segmented approaches, in response to particular needs, take root. Finally, a watching brief must be kept on the issue of creaming and parking. It is crucial to understand much more about the quality of support offered and the utility of the quantity of support in reaching a judgement on this issue.

Footnotes [back]

[1] The evaluation consortium comprises: IES, the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI/Inclusion), GfK NOP, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), and the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York (SPRU).

[2] An end-to-end provider is responsible for an individual’s case throughout their two years on the Work Programme, whereas as a spot provider may be brought in for specialist support and/or training.