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Jobseeker classification and Work Programme Plus

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Whilst DWP are keeping tight-lipped around the detail of the successor programme to the Work Programme until after November’s Comprehensive Spending Review, a few hints around design parameters are starting to emerge. Notably, it seems likely that “Work Programme Plus” (as it is being referred to) will segment jobseekers by their characteristics, not by the benefits which they receive. This is perhaps unsurprising given roll-out of Universal Credit where all claimants are effectively on the same benefit. The approach recognises that some historic JSA claimants may have quite acute and complex employment barriers, whilst some ESA claimants may, despite a health related impairment, still be relatively job ready.

The move is a nod to Australia, where similar segmentation has been applied for many years. In Australia the Job Seeker Classification Instrument (JSCI) is an assessment tool used to measure a job seeker’s relative difficulty in securing and sustaining employment, ensuring that they are then referred to the most appropriate employability service. The JSCI takes account of several factors, such as work experience, educational attainment, vocational qualifications, and the severity of any disabilities. This results in a “score” being generated, which is used to allocate the jobseeker to an overall category of work-readiness, known as a “stream”. The performance of contracted providers is then measured against their outcome performance across different streams. All in all, the system appears to work relatively well.

The approach may yet, however, cause DWP some headaches in deciding who should apply such a JSCI; in Australia this function is shared between public bodies as well as providers. Then there is the question as to what right of appeal should exist if a jobseeker perceives that they have been incorrectly scored. There are some parallels here with DWP’s existing Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which already segments jobseekers against the most appropriate work related benefit according to the severity of their disability. WCAs have, however, been marred by anecdotal tales of jobseekers with severe disabilities being mandated to attend work focused interviews; stories which contributed to Atos Healthcare’s very public exiting of their contract with DWP to deliver WCAs earlier this year.

Work Programme Plus could face similar controversies. What, for example, might be the consequences if the findings from a WCA fundamentally contradict the JSCI score for the same jobseeker? Maximus, who took over the delivery of WCAs from Atos, have a contract with DWP which runs to 2018, creating a potentially awkward contract overlap with Work Programme Plus. What too if a provider wants to challenge the score, in perceiving that a jobseeker has more complex needs than their stream allocation suggests – especially if this may influence their ability to secure an outcome payment, or otherwise skew their contractual performance against targets?

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The challenges don’t end there. As at August 2015 there were over 180,000 JSA claimants, with claims of 12 months or longer, and that’s before we consider the ESA cohort. All such jobseekers would presumably need to go through a JSCI styled process prior to, or at the point of, referral to Work Programme Plus. This presents a massive transition obstacle with a clear risk that early referral patterns to a new programme could be inevitably erratic, as well as genuine difficulty in forecasting how many jobseekers will end up in each stream.

There is then the matter of how many streams may be applied, and whether or not a “single work programme” is still the best solution for servicing all streams, or whether different streams should be serviced by different types of contract.

All of this serves to highlight the inherent difficulty in trying to objectively measure the comparative job readiness of different jobseekers and to introduce a model of segmentation. No doubt there will be a lot more debate across the employability sector in the months ahead in determining a possible way forward. The prize of jobseeker segmentation may be desirable, but the journey to get there may be inevitably painful.

Jim Carley is managing director of Carley Consult, a specialist business development agency supporting the skills and employability sectors

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