From education to employment

Partnership working in employment services and responding to the current crisis

Professor Dan Finn, Emeritus Professor of Social Inclusion, University of Portsmouth

Key findings from international research on partnership working between Public Employment Services and other labour market intermediaries and service providers, with a particular focus on Jobcentre Plus.

Extensive and effective partnership working is now needed to build local capacity to meet the needs of employers and jobseekers whose prospects are being blighted by the pandemic recession.

Although structured differently a Public Employment Service (PES) exists in nearly all countries and acts as one of the major delivery systems through which governments respond to economic and natural crises and implement employment, labour market, and social policies. In most countries the PES is now playing a key role in providing emergency assistance and job matching services to employers and workers impacted by the Coronavirus crisis. They are also simultaneously adjusting their service delivery models to meet new ‘social distancing’ constraints, including an acceleration in the use of online digital services.

The success of each PES in meeting the challenges they now face will be shaped in part by how well they coordinate and conduct their relationships in partnership with employer organisations, other public organisations, including local government, employment programme providers and providers of complementary services ranging from skills training and child care through to social housing. A novel feature of the service delivery landscape is the growing potential to work with a wider and diverse range of commercial agencies providing in-person and online job matching, recruitment, training and temporary staffing services to employers and jobseekers. 

In a recent study, commissioned by the International Labour Organisation, I reviewed the design and impacts of PES partnership working in both developed and developing countries, with a particular focus on China, India, Colombia and South Korea.[1] The results showed that PES engagement in partnership working had played a key role in enabling them to increase service coverage and provide support to employers and previously underserved groups especially young people and some of the vast populations of informal and irregular workers in the case study countries.

The findings from the report provide insights that are of interest to employability practitioners and may be useful for policy makers considering which partnership approaches to support as they develop PES services to meet the needs of job seekers and employers in the radically changed circumstances of the early 2020s.

Public Employment Service partnerships

PES partnerships can be strategic, operational or contractual. They take a variety of forms, from informal working groups established in response to a specific challenge such as a major plant closure, through to formal committees or boards and multilevel structures that have both a strategic decision-making body and an operational body. PES’s are often involved in a range of strategic and/or delivery partnerships that may operate at national, regional, or local levels. In some partnerships the PES may be the lead organisation, in others the PES will be a contributing partner working jointly with other organisations. There are multiple examples also of locally driven partnerships, that the PES might lead, or be part of, where organisations and stakeholders agreed to share information, collaborate and/or pool resources. Partnerships may therefore be ‘top down’ and mandated by national governments, or they may be ‘bottom up’ and developed voluntarily by the PES and/or other agencies, such as regional or municipal governments.

Partnership agreements can be formalised through a wide range of instruments. Agreements between public sector organisations often take the form of a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU), which is not legally enforceable, but sets out agreed objectives and partnership arrangements. Some partnership arrangements, especially ‘public private partnerships’, take the form of legal contracts setting out clear ‘terms and conditions’.  Inter-organisational obligations are often set out in Service Level Agreements.

Many PES-related partnerships are, however, informal and these are especially important at local level, where recourse to informal arrangements is widespread and such local agreements can offer a low-cost way of meeting immediate needs for coordination and efficiency, as is emerging in many countries in response to the current crisis.

Jobcentre Plus and partnership working

Partnership working is central to the work of Jobcentre Plus and in each region DWP District Managers are typically supported by Partnership Managers who are expected to engage strategically with local employers and stakeholders, including local government, local employer partnerships and associations, skills providers and community organisations. Partnership Managers should also act as the redundancy single point of contact if the number of local employees being made redundant is low, and work with the DWP’s ‘Rapid Response to Redundancy Service’ when the numbers are over 20. The RRS service is co-ordinated nationally by the DWP’s National Employer and Partnership Team and Jobcentres have a statutory responsibility to work with other agencies in tackling large scale redundancies.

In the past decade Jobcentre partnership working has increased following implementation of welfare reforms and Universal Credit, the wider devolution agenda, and the decision to rationalise the Jobcentre network which saw the closure of over 100 Jobcentres – about 15% of the network – between 2016 and 2018. These changes have had a major impact on the ways in which Jobcentres, local government, and other providers, coordinate and align their services. The ‘combined local authorities’ also now exercise devolved powers that enable them to better coordinate aspects of employment, skills and health provision.

DWP partnership working, and service coordination has always been largely voluntary, however, and local government, and even the combined local authorities, have only limited influence on the design or commissioning of Jobcentre support and on how resources are deployed to meet local needs. The DWP approach to localism remains constrained by the requirement to meet centrally defined national objectives and top-down performance management. This highly centralised approach has been changing, however, as the DWP and Jobcentres have worked with partners to develop services for groups not well served by mainstream employment programmes, including ‘troubled families’, disadvantaged young people, new migrants and other jobseekers not claiming benefits, and those on disability benefits ineligible for mainstream employment services. Partnership working has also given Jobcentre managers an opportunity to influence how, and in support of whom, local complementary employment and skills programmes are targeted.

The pressure to better coordinate DWP provision with other local services has further increased as Jobcentres and Work Coaches have implemented UC work requirements and sought to become a gateway to complementary services for low paid workers, claimants with limited work capacity, lone parents with younger children and the partners and wives of benefit claimants. The necessity to provide for a more diverse and challenging caseload of working age claimants requires the DWP and Jobcentres to work more flexibly and collaboratively. This includes now also delivering DWP employment advisory services in over 1,100 external locations, which include community and child-care centres, prisons, health services, and so on.

In some parts of the UK Jobcentres are now part of more coherent partnerships, delivering better networked systems of local employment assistance and benefit services. These networks are found in varied localities, where local government, Jobcentres and other service providers agree strategic objectives on poverty reduction and increasing local employment. In some parts of the country local partnership agreements and cross-referral arrangements seek explicitly to better coordinate service delivery. This has already resulted in better aligned, and sometimes co-located, services where, for example, skills, careers, health, and money advice services, and DWP employment support are delivered alongside each other on a part-time or full-time basis.

Partnership working and responding to the current crisis

Local partnerships are now playing a key role in supporting employers and jobseekers affected by the recession and in relieving some of the pressures on Jobcentres and the DWP’s RRS. In Leicestershire, for example, a Covid-19 redundancy and recruitment service has been established by the Local Enterprise Partnership, bringing together local government, the DWP, and skills providers. In another example, Greater Manchester’s ‘Employ GM’, is providing immediate job matching whilst coordinating partner networks to help businesses retain their current workers and/or help those losing employment access new jobs. Partnership interventions are also being supported by specialist redundancy services in ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland. Such partnership approaches will need to accelerate further as the full unemployment consequences of the pandemic crisis emerge, especially when the ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ and the ‘Self-Employment Income Support Scheme’ are unwound.

Partnership working is not a substitute for the investments in employment services and programmes that will be needed to tackle the consequences of the current recession, but it represents a way of amplifying the impacts from investments in such programmes and related services. The advantages of partnership working do not, however, arise automatically, and as in other countries, the DWP, Jobcentre Plus and local government will need to better coordinate and combine their efforts if they are to realise the benefits of partnership working. One starting point would be to swiftly update and republish the 2011 RRS toolkit for Jobcentres and local partners that helped focus and shape partnership working in response to the previous recession.

Professor Dan Finn, Emeritus Professor of Social Inclusion, University of Portsmouth

1 Formal publication of the report has been delayed due to the crisis but a full preprint version can be accessed here.

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