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Last week I was asked to respond to a first wave of research findings around welfare conditionality. It’s a fascinating project over several years bringing together academics from the universities of York, Glasgow, Heriot Watt, Salford, Sheffield Hallam, Sheffield and the Economic and Social Research Council to research whether conditionality, sanctions and support create behavioural change amongst job seekers. See the report here - http://www.welfareconditionality.ac.uk/2016/05/effects-of-welfare-sanctions-and-conditional-support-profoundly-negative-our-first-wave-findings/

The report makes sobering reading and reminded me of the absolutely fundamental part that the professionalization of the employability industry plays in welfare reform. As the employment rate rises resources are being concentrated on the progression of those already in work and upon job seekers with multiple barriers and challenges. The skills, aptitude and application of Jobcentre Plus and private and voluntary sector delivery staff will have to be refined to meet more specialised needs. They will be required to be empathetic, proactive, supportive and to have a deep and broad understanding of the challenges beneficiaries face, and how to overcome them.

The jobseekers sampled for the research were generally negative about conditionality and sanctions and there were many examples of personal advisers taking a predominantly bureaucratic rather than a coaching approach to the support they gave beneficiaries. However this was just a sample and the researchers had not been enabled to interview Jobcentre Plus or Work Programme staff. I am not therefore suggesting that the “tick the box” mentality is all pervading in the employability sector but I do believe that there is a tendency towards “lip service” to policy and inadequate policy implementation and that causes me concern.

I want to concentrate here on the role of the Universal Credit Work Coach particularly in relation to in-work conditionality. In work progression has been described as “potentially the greatest welfare reform in decades” by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, adding “realising this potential means a steep on the job learning curve.”

The professionalization of the wider employability sector (by which I mean the professionalization of Jobcentre Plus staff as well as staff working for private and voluntary sector providers) has been a particular interest for me for several years and I was a founder board member and Chair of the Institute of Employability Professionals, the membership body of the sector. I and colleagues put much effort into working with Jobcentre Plus to seek the alignment of their qualification framework with our own because it seemed ill-judged to be creating two separate streams of activity when we could share learning, resources and expertise through a permeable wall by the creation of one – after all we all work with the same job seekers.

Towards the end of the Coalition Government I met with Esther McVey, the Employment Minister to argue for this alignment. The Minister did not consider this appropriate at that time. Her argument seemed pretty compelling. DWP were creating a force of super advisers called Work Coaches whose job role would be considerably different to that of Personal Advisers. These qualified coaches would support Universal Credit beneficiaries in to work and then in to better work, more hours and increased pay until they were no longer welfare dependent. They would be using sports coaching as their model. It seemed that exciting staff development was being planned by DWP.

However, the research suggests that Work Coaches have not yet become the innovative instrument for change that they are intended to be and my question is why the initial intention appears to have gone off track and more importantly how do we refocus?

The Work Coach role profile makes interesting reading and clearly supports the policy intent. The role’s purpose is sensible and all embracing:

“Work Coaches will be based in the Jobcentre and will conduct relevant activities with JSA claimants to support them and their families to become financially independent.”

The main activities associated with the role include:

  • Make every claimant contact count by coaching them to take responsibility for getting themselves in to work
  • Complete a Claimant Commitment and be accountable for the decisions made during interviews with claimants to help move them back in to sustained employment
  • Promote and encourage the use of Universal Jobmatch for jobsearch activity. Proactively suggest ways claimants may improve the matches they receive
  • Offer dynamic, flexible advice and support to underpin claimant’s personalised commitment of jobsearch actions and support them to develop the skills they need to look for and obtain work
  • Promote the use of My Work Plan by coaching claimants to forward plan their own work search activities
  • Support colleagues in implementing conditionality and ensuring they understand the level of evidence required in My Work Plan
  • To be accountable for decisions on availability with a clear rationale for the level, frequency and intensity of contact they have with each claimant
  • Undertake Work Services activity with the claimant including maintenance of claimant’s skills/CV using Universal Jobmatch where appropriate
  • Make timely decisions, based on the needs of the claimant, to refer them to appropriate support
  • Reconsider mandation decisions where requested by the claimant.

If you support the idea of a balanced relationship of rights and responsibilities, as I do, the support offered in this role looks to be appropriate, supportive, respectful and humane.

The role profile closes with the requisite knowledge and skills required for the role and these are cited as:

  • Knowledge of the Work Programme and the Jobcentre Plus Offer
  • Identify potential non-standard claimants and arrange for further assistance where required
  • Develop athlete/coach relationships with claimants to encourage self-sufficiency and personal responsibility

Here then is the athlete/coach relationship the Minister was referring to.

Let’s think for a moment about what an athlete/coach’s relationship looks like. According to Olympic.org, the official website of the Olympic Movement, the qualities of a great sports coach are exactly the attributes we would expect from a Work Coach:

“Positive, enthusiastic, supportive, trusting, focused, goal-orientated, knowledgeable, observant, respectful, patient and a clear communicator.”

Sadly the reality, if we are to take the Welfare Conditionality report’s evidence at face value, is that, with a few notable exceptions, Work Coaches fall short of the expectations of their role profile. And we have to ask why this is the case. Why are so many Work Coaches not fulfilling the coaching elements of their job description? Why the shift in Jobcentre Plus’s thinking and what or who is leading this shift in direction?

Looking for a moment at In-work conditionality I was particularly struck by the report’s accounts of the imbalance between the weight of the sanctions and the absence of in-work support and appropriate flexibilities so that beneficiaries who were now in work could also meet their Claimant Commitment. At a time when a claimant should be feeling most motivated they are put under yet more pressure to put in the jobsearch hours and find a second job. One respondent said:

“It is really because they’ve got the pressure to get a second job. They’ve got the pressure coming because employers don’t want to employ them because they are not available. I think that is actually as much pressure as being out of work.”

Last week the In work progression in Universal Credit report was released by the Work and Pensions Select Committee and this documents some interesting evidence. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news-parliament-2015/in-work-progression-report-published-15-16/

Pauline Crellin, the Head of Universal Credit at DWP, told the Committee that Work Coaches should consider shift patterns and the availability of additional hours in setting reasonable in-work conditions.

According to a DWP Universal Credit in-work progression briefing dated November 2015 Work Coaches are indeed required to consider the individual circumstances of claimants including caring responsibilities, mental and physical health, travel to work, and skills and motivation in agreeing a Claimant Commitment.

Further, the Employment Minister Priti Patel told the Select Committee that because in-work conditionality is much more focussed on the individual than for out of work claimants inappropriate conditions and financial sanctions would not be imposed. That statement can be found in the Conditionality section of the report (Chapter 5 section 53).

Evidence from several organisations to the Select Committee underlined the lack of detail in the DWP guidance in identifying and addressing barriers to progression and the Committee has recommended that the DWP publishes more comprehensive guidance to Work Coaches on applying in-work conditionality. This is to include how to account for individual circumstances relating to skills, confidence, health, caring responsibilities, access to both care and transport and the availability of local work.

A further recommendation is that guidance sets out circumstances when it would be appropriate and constructive to take in to account input from the employer in establishing the reasonable conditions of an in-work Claimant Commitment.

The Select Committee also recommends the publication by DWP of in-work sanctions by number and rate, by claimant characteristics and JCP district on a quarterly basis from Autumn 2016.

Our most vulnerable need and deserve appropriate support from Work Coaches who do exactly that – coach. Anything less, whether delivered by Jobcentre Plus or contracted providers is cynical, counter-productive and frankly unacceptable in a humane society.

It’s time to be brave and radical. Everyone working with jobseekers must be supported to work to the highest professional level. The right staff working to the Work Coach role profile, selected for their expertise and coaching skills and trained appropriately could have a considerable impact upon the long term success and progression of job seekers. It’s my hope that Jobcentre Plus will role out Work Coaches in earnest, working as initially intended on the sports/athlete model. Then we really will have a World-class public employment service of which we can be justly proud.

As Frank Field Chair of the Select Committee has said: “This is a very different kind of welfare, which will require developing a new kind of public servant.”

 

Fran Parry is MD of her consultancy “Bright Sparks Consultancy Ltd” and writes as an independent observer. Fran can be contacted via her website www.brightsparks.uk.com

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