On the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, a diverse range of local authority Chief Executives from across the UK gathered in Harrogate for a Roundtable event ‘Can local government help deliver the welfare agenda?’ which ran alongside the Local Government Association Conference. In a short space of time we covered a range of issues. In this blog, I summarise the main issues that were debated, focusing on skills, the challenges of provision of employment support services, and the nature of effective evaluation.
Unsurprisingly skills came up as a key problem, including skills mismatches within local areas, both in relation to moving the unemployed into work and also with regard to employee retention and progression. One example given was of money being made available for skills training in particular geographical areas without incorporating intelligence about the jobs which are likely to be available in local and regional labour markets in future. Such skills mismatch problems are symptomatic of a broader fragmented landscape of skills and employment at the Whitehall level. The agendas of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills appear radically different in this area. The DWP seems more focused on the quickest way into work (in line with ongoing welfare reforms), rather than long-term skills development. In the context of potential (and partial, rather than total) devolution this fragmentation of the provision of social security and skills and employment support is likely to become even more messy, with accompanying accountability issues. Local Enterprise Partnerships (and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland) have a key role to play here but to date it’s not clear how far they are fulfilling this.
Also apparent from the discussion at the Roundtable was that amongst the local authority areas represented – from the urban to the rural and coastal – most were involved in delivering a range of employment support initiatives for a diverse range of groups outside the labour market, particularly those with multiple barriers to work. In some areas such projects were in response to perceived gaps in central government-commissioned Work Programme provision and in other areas they ran alongside the Work Programme. However, very little mention was made of partnerships with Work Programme providers. This raises two critical points.
Firstly, it seems sensible (and more cost-effective) not to duplicate existing – and, importantly, effective – provision. This will become even more crucial in the context of potential devolution settlements. Both local authorities and providers contracted to DWP to delivery employment services (alongside LEPs and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland) need to think more creatively about how to work together more effectively in the next Work Programme contract (from 2017). This is crucial for the provision of more effective employment support for the unemployed and also to provide a more coherent service for employers.
Secondly, with much good work going on, a key question is how to capture what is happening and to rigorously and robustly evaluate it. A few of the projects mentioned around the table were being evaluated but in the context of ongoing and severe local authority budget cuts, there is a need to think more creatively about how local authorities, organisations delivering employment and skills support and universities can work together to evaluate what works for whom and in what contexts (circumstances, labour markets). The black box approach of the Work Programme (freeing employment services up from government prescription) is a promising idea in principle. However, four years on from the introduction of the Work Programme it is still unclear as to whether and how evidence about what works is being harnessed and, importantly, disseminated across all interested organisations. As Julia Salado-Rasmussen argues in her recent CERIC blog, establishing causal links between active labour market interventions and outcomes can be difficult. The potential of more localised (and personalised) provision provides an opportunity for fine-grained and meaningful evaluation that can be better translated into future policy. However, one of the shortcomings of the competitive Work Programme model (and the broader commissioning of employment services) is that programme data can often be protected as ‘commercial in confidence’. It is crucial that such evidence is shared and used for wider benefit in order to inform future interventions to assist the unemployed into work.
Dr Jo Ingold is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy at Leeds University Business School, UK and is currently researching employer engagement in welfare to work programmes: http://business.leeds.ac.uk/research-and-innovation/research-projects/how-do-inter-organisational-relations-affect-employer-engagement-uk-and-denmark/