From education to employment

Designing Restart: Six things to consider

Stephen Evans suggests 6 things to consider when designing Restart

The new Restart programme to help long-term unemployed people back to work is welcome, but the devil’s in the detail.

It’s great news that the first vaccine has been approved for rollout. But the fallout of the coronavirus crisis is likely to be with us for years to come. Learning and Work Institute research suggests long-term unemployment is likely to spike during spring and summer 2021. In the last three recessions, it has taken 3-7 years for employment to return to its pre-recession peak.

In that context, the Chancellor’s announcement of £2.9 billion for a new Restart programme to help this group find work, alongside £1.4 billion to expand Jobcentre Plus capacity, is welcome. By the second half of 2021 the economy is likely to be growing again – we need to make sure no-one is left behind.

We must learn the lessons of previous programmes. The Work Programme, introduced after the last recession to support long-term unemployed people back to work, delivered good results for many and at lower cost than previous employment programmes. But it worked less well for groups like older workers and people with health problems and disabilities. A lack of clear minimum service and contact standards, combined with payment by results for groups that needed more support, led to too many people being left with insufficient help for much of their two years on the programme. This wasn’t helped by the programme being insufficiently integrated with local services and at a time when many budgets were being cut. Lastly, it did not have a focus on helping participants to progress once in work or build their earnings.

Here’s six things to look at in the design of Restart:

  1. Eligibility: support for all who are long-term unemployed. This should not just be a programme for benefit claimants, it should include those who have been furloughed for a significant time and those out of work but not claiming benefits. People in these groups should be able to volunteer for Restart or be referred by e.g. a local authority or housing association.
  2. Support: minimum service standards including contact time. Every participant should have a personal advisor, tailored action plan and regular (I would suggest fortnightly) contact. This would move away from the black box approach of the Work Programme which left providers to determine what to offer to each customer and set clear service standards for all. Specialist support, such as with health or skills, must be available on top of this. You can’t do this on the cheap and it requires good local links to other provision – one programme can’t do it all.
  3. Local leadership: smaller contract areas and a clear role for local government. Restart will be designed and commissioned nationally. But there’s so much value local government and others can add through the services they commission and their place-making roles. That requires smaller contract package areas than the Work Programme, more in line with functional economic geographies, and a specific role for local government in ensuring the programme works locally and is joined up with other support – there’s lots of employment support out there already.
  4. Structure: avoid unrealistic promises and limit time on programme. The Work Programme wasn’t helped a lack of realism at times from both government and providers on outcomes that was encouraged by the commissioning process. Quality support for all demands realism on both from the DWP and providers. I’d also argue that two years was too long for people to be on the Work Programme and contributed to the problem of ‘parking’ where those felt unlikely to find a job quickly were left with too little support. So I’d say people should be on the programme for a year, with a limit on price competition.
  5. Quality: support that works with high quality advisers. Even the best employment programmes generally only help up to 50% of participants find work. We need to focus on job search but also on improving long-term prospects. For example, there should be a basic skills guarantee that all who need help with literacy and numeracy get it, wrapped around job search. It also needs to be a quality recruitment service for employers. Frontline advisers are key, again pointing to the need for realistic pricing and to work with the Institute for Employability Professionals and others on training support.
  6. Flexibility: adapting to uncertainty. The number of people needing support is likely to rise substantially in spring 2021, with falls thereafter but significant uncertainty. This means we need significant capacity in place by spring, but then flexibility to ramp it up or down depending on what’s happening in the economy. Commissioning must reflect this and not build in rigidities, but that’s challenging for providers to manage.

Taken together, this would perhaps be a mix of elements of the early New Deals with lessons from the Work Programme.

Of course, we also need to minimise the number of people becoming long-term unemployed and make sure we don’t simply repeat the same cycle that didn’t work first time for those who don’t have a job after completing Restart. Our Work and Skills proposal made suggestions, including a Job Guarantee.

Ultimately people get jobs or move into self-employment, not providers or Jobcentre Plus, and it is employers that offer jobs. Employment support, including Restart, needs to agree a clear action plan with those out of work, review it regularly, and make sure they and employers have the right support. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of commissioning, but that’s the fundamental point. Get that right and 2021 could be a year of recovery and opportunity.

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute

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