I have been away. For a year. In this time I have met people in Africa who are living in abject poverty, learning, training and working to better their life conditions and those of their communities. I have talked with homeless young people and drug addicts in Canada; to wealthy but aimless tech entrepreneurs in Seattle; to workless veterans struggling to meet health care bills in San Francisco and to migrant workers in San Diego working multiple jobs and struggling to make ends meet. Everywhere I went people had a story to tell about the everyday challenges they face and the support they'd like, but in many cases don't get.
Returning to work in the week of the IntoWork Convention I wondered how relevant this annual "shin dig" would really feel to me now? I needn't have worried! Recent Budget announcements meant the programme was very prescient. In the face of freezing DWP benefits, tax credits and local housing allowance; the cutting of tax credits to families with children; the lowering of the benefit cap and proposed cuts to ESA it's the most vulnerable who will suffer - in particular low paid working families, larger families and people with disabilities. There was a lot of rhetoric in response to the Budget of the sort one might expect. What I pondered would emerge from IntoWork to support our citizenry in a way that folks I met on my travels weren't?
The enthusiasm to address and get on with the job in hand was palpable but enthusiasm alone doesn't a policy make and policy doesn't always translate in to practice, and seldom does so swiftly. Employment Minister Priti Patel announced herself a "lady in a hurry" and pretty much open for business to discuss innovative ways to practice. This was an ongoing theme throughout the Convention - what is working, where is it working and why? The gauntlet was firmly laid down by industry observers like Nesta's Geoff Mulgan and DWP itself asking if the welfare to work industry has the will to work more creatively, more collaboratively and with greater ingenuity. Is the industry really ready to adapt?
I have a reasonable level of confidence that it is but this is a step change that necessitates some hard negotiation by DWP with Treasury to release funds to enable providers to take risks and test new and innovative ways of working. This in turn requires the industry to trust each other and work in the common interests of the customers we are here to serve. That's a big ask as we enter the pre-emptive stages of the commissioning round for the Work Programme's second iteration.
After a good conference there's always a bit of self-congratulation but really it's only as successful as the seeds that it sows and there were several emerging themes this year that we need to tend to and make happen:
- Let's push for that "What Works" centre we've been talking about for years. Why can't like-minded providers pool resources and crowd fund this and at least test the concept for two or three years?
- DWP should look to the Australian Innovation Fund and make resource available to emulate something similar giving an opportunity to providers to test and report back on different approaches.
- Let's grasp the nettle and stop treating the hardest to reach client as the elephant in the room and acknowledge that they are distanced from employment for good reason and getting them back to work takes time and a specialist skills set. If that necessitates the creation of a new programme aimed at ESA clients that's what needs to hapen.
- Let's make this the year we really do put the individual customer at the centre of our holistic thinking by routinely integrating their employment, skills and health needs in a "one stop" approach. We don't need Ministers and civil servants to give us affirmation to do that. Its already being done, we just need to do more of it.
And finally please, let us listen to what our customers are telling us. Two comments from individuals who had been at the receiving end of employability programmes rang particularly true. One was a lady with MS now working with jobseekers herself who pleaded that she be defined by what she can do and not by what she can't. Her implication was that it was downright depressing to be reminded daily of her disability but heartily energising to be reminded of her ability. The second was Frank who told us bluntly to get out more, from behind our desks and in to the communities we serve.
However, what resonated most for me was a colleague tweeting to say that as a cancer sufferer he thought the health and work discussions were "divorced from reality". He's right. We can't sit on our hands assuming we have the answers. Good policy translated in to effective practice means testing our theories and that means listening and understanding what the recipients of our services are telling us. If my year out has taught me one thing it is that listening is a skill. You don't necessarily hear what you want to hear but listen you must and then you must act.