Jobcentre Plus: Rhetoric vs reality.

The ‘New Deal’ from Jobcentre Plus – neither ‘new’ nor any kind of deal.

Gibbon famously described the Holy Roman Empire as neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Likewise the UK government’s flexible new deal is neither flexible nor new nor any kind of deal – at least if that implies a symbiotic contract.

This is the experience of a redundant former senior executive on a compulsory 13 week Jobcentre Plus New Deal experience in Summer 2009 ….

First may I emphasise what this is NOT. I have NO complaint about the staff.

What I observed was over-worked, under-resourced people struggling to do their best in unpromising circumstances and, from what I could see, set unrealistic targets (in the current job climate). They also suffer from a paper-wasting burden of bureaucratic compliance predicated on the assumption that most of their customers (as the system calls them) are work-shy shirkers trying to get as much as possible by doing as little as possible – which is not the case.

So may I emphasise that I have nothing but praise for the Skills Training staff with whom I came into day-to-day contact. My tutor was as helpful as possible and did all he could for me. So did the IT specialist who flexibly operated the available resources to provide probably the only useful activity which allowed me to brush up and extend my IT skills. Likewise the staffer who provided the introduction and motivational talks – at a level carefully pitched to be appropriate for most of the audience – who aimed to challenge external shibboleths about them as individuals ie that they were work-shy good-for-nothings on the take.

So why am I motivated to write this critique? Because of the alienation generated by a ‘system’ in which the rhetoric simply fails to match the reality: I felt ‘lied to’!

The ‘New Deal’

It was stated on a Channel 4 Despatches programme that the New Deal provides an individually tailored programme based around a personal tutor to get people back into jobs. But …

First, half of what is supposedly on offer is not available. The Jobcentre Plus form stated that programmes for IT/Network, Web Design, Computerised Account (sic) Call Centre Training, Care/childcare (Elderly) Training and Hospitality & Catering were on hold – a euphemism for not available. As my first choice would have been web design, the system could not even supply the supposedly available provision I would have chosen.

Second, on the course I was therefore compelled to attend at Skills Training, I was allocated to an individual tutor. However:

• He or she has 50+ ‘customers’ – 60 by the time I left. It is quite simply impossible for them to provide more than a cursory level of individual mentoring and the more one is able to work on one’s own, the less individual attention one receives. This is exacerbated by:

• The system is, in fact, run with the underlying imperative that what matters most is compliance – and the paperwork to prove it: that people are present for the required 30 hours per week and not looking at anything inappropriate on the computers. If this means they sit around effectively doing nothing – not because they are lazy but because with unemployment growing substantially they have in practice exhausted all realistic avenues to get work – then sit around doing nothing is what they will do! The office has become a detention centre – or worse.

• The whole approach is the ‘tick-box’ mentality of compliance with stated targets: outcomes are less important. With unemployment rising the result is over-crowding (I wondered whether fire regulations were exceeded in rooms which at times became packed) sometimes without the resources in terms of computers for even those people who wanted to do Internet job searches to do so.

• The system assumes people are unemployed through a lack of literacy, numeracy or skills – or laziness – rather than because of a vicious job market as a result of the credit crunch.

• It is unable to cope with the better-qualified and those with higher expectations. In particular, the backgrounds and experience of the tutors means they are ill-equipped to add value to job searches much beyond minimum wage entry level local jobs. This is demonstrated by the system of tutor/tutee allocations: I was quite specifically told that these were random with no attempt to match the job-seekers’ expertise and qualifications with those of potential tutors.

Overall impact

• To depress me
• To convince me of the futility of my job search
• To demonstrate to me the pointlessness of so much that passes for work
• To generate resentment against a system not designed for the current circumstances

Unanswered questions 

• What’s the objective?

Theoretically it is to get people back into work. In practice, other aspects are more important. The training company must meet its targets. This leads to an obsession with evidential paperwork with the training company subject to random inspection and return of monies if evidential paperwork is incomplete.

As Channel 4 news highlighted on Monday 29 June, this easily spills over into the fabrication of outcomes (though for the record the companies involved in the report did not include Skills Training) and outright fraud.

In other words, the targets set to prove the results become the objective(s) rather than the real objective itself – a common though largely unaddressed systemic failing.

• Does one-size fit all?

For the poorly educated and/or those whose English is weak because it is not their first language, there did seem to be an attempt to compensate for their weaknesses though how successful this training was I cannot say. It was certainly pretty much the only training that took place.

What can be said with certainty is that the single regime approach is simply ineffective and even counter-productive when applied to those who are already well-qualified or highly skilled.

• Job-seeking or light regime detention centre?

The result was that at times the place seemed more like a detention centre to punish those who had had the temerity to be unemployed and claim state benefit.
Of course, the prevailing belief in welfare-scroungers and the work-shy will probably cause many to believe that this should be the case but needs to be set in the context of the depression, resentment and sense of futility this causes.

• Is it Value for taxpayers’ money?

As I understand the arrangement, Skills Training is a private sector company paid a capitation fee by Jobcentre Plus.

The so-called customer provides no input because they are captives of a compulsory system with the threat of allowance withdrawal if they fail to comply.

The level of capitation is unknown but rumours circulate that it is certainly in the thousands of pounds per ‘customer’.
In packed rooms using old-fashioned equipment with over-worked staff trying to manage large numbers of compulsory customers, it seems to me Skills Training is ‘packing ‘em in and selling ‘em cheap’: a long way from the Government’s vision of an individually tailored new deal based around one-on-one provision.

Most importantly, at a time of falling tax revenues and a growing public sector deficit, it seems to me highly questionable whether the taxpayer is getting value for money from the whole arrangement

How could it change for the better? 

• Make the reality match the rhetoric: the system does not even operate properly within its own terms of providing Individual one on one mentoring appropriate to the person.

• The tutoring approach is undermined by the sheer scale of the current economic situation. There must be fewer job-seekers per tutor, a more diverse range of tutors available and a serious attempt to match the tutor to the level of the job-seeker.

• Closer integration of public and private sector provision with redundant executives matched to provision closer to their own level of experience rather than providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. At the moment the getting people into work market is very highly segmented between high-end head-hunters and new deal bottom end suppliers. Surely the expertise of the former should be brought in to improve the latter?

• Trust people more: abusers of the system are much fewer than people think and even if they get away with it, so what? Large scale benefit fraud which does matter and has to be stopped should be and is dealt with elsewhere. What happens now is that to account properly for pounds and pennies, thousands of pounds is expended on administrative compliance.

• More fundamentally, re-think targets to remove perverse incentives to the training companies who seem to be given what is not far off a license to print money at tax-payers expense by providing a compulsory to the customer, low-quality experience. It may have justification and work ok during a ‘boom’; it most certainly does not during the inevitable ‘bust’ phase of the cycle.

The country will pay a progressively higher price by failing to address these issues.

Of course, I could think of renting a large room, filling it with clapped out computers, work out a talk on motivation and approach Jobcentre Plus for a training contract. Now there’s an idea!

This article submitted by
a redundant former senior executive.

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