Can the Work Programme work for all user groups? - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

6  Assuring service standards for all participants

112.  This chapter considers whether, beyond the financial incentives offered within the differential pricing model, there are sufficient safeguards within the Work Programme to ensure that all participants receive an appropriate standard of service.

The "black box" approach

113.  DWP's Invitation to Tender for the Work Programme stated that: "specialist delivery partners [...] are best placed to identify the best ways of getting people back to work, and will be allowed the freedom to do so without detailed prescription from central government".[104] This freedom from central prescription of services is known as a "black box" approach. Its aim is to allow providers to innovate and personalise interventions to suit the needs of individual jobseekers and focus on achieving sustained job outcomes, rather than being driven by centrally-prescribed processes.

114.  In our first Work Programme Report we were supportive of the black box approach, as long as there were protections for Work Programme participants to ensure that all jobseekers knew the level of service to which they were entitled and that there were safeguards to ensure that all participants were treated appropriately.[105] The Government's response was that providers' Minimum Service Standards would ensure that this was the case (see below).[106]

115.  There was qualified support for a black box approach from witnesses to this inquiry. Expert witnesses pointed out that an inevitable consequence of a black box approach is a lack of central control over the processes of service delivery. Professor Sainsbury's view, supported by other expert witnesses, was that a non-prescriptive approach was preferable if the objective is for services to "evolve and respond".[107]

116.  However, Professor Sainsbury believed that it was not yet clear how the black box was expected to operate in practice. He highlighted evidence of some confusion about the appropriate definition. One view was that it should be defined as the services providers promise to deliver at the commissioning stage i.e. providers should be held to what they pledged to deliver in their contracts. An alternative view, widely held by providers, was that providers should have freedom to "evolve their services and innovate". The official evaluation team had found "quite a bit of tension" between JCP contract managers and providers over the appropriate definition.[108]

117.  Tony Wilson of Inclusion noted that, where a black box had initially been applied in welfare-to-work schemes overseas, governments had tended to take back some control over services over time, as a reaction to concerns about "equity and standards of service".[109] Although he believed the pricing structure was not yet right, Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation argued that greater prescription from Whitehall would be "the wrong way to go" in the Work Programme, because it was an outcome-based programme in which providers' behaviours were intended to be driven by prices.[110]

118.  DWP emphasised that "no delivery model should be regarded as fixed" and that "providers are actively encouraged to adapt their delivery models in the light of lessons learned from experience". It stated that, while providers must seek DWP's approval for changes to delivery models, changes would normally be agreed. DWP was clear that "the onus is on providers to use initiative and innovation to deliver best performance".[111]

119.  We support a "black box" approach to service delivery; however, DWP must be clearer that this means that providers have the freedom to innovate and personalise services, free from government prescription. Despite minimal evidence of substantive personalisation thus far, we believe that a prescription-free approach is preferable to a centrally-prescribed, process-driven system, which might stifle the potential for innovation and be an inefficient use of DWP's resources.

Minimum Service Standards

120.  DWP did not prescribe the services providers should deliver but it required primes to set out Minimum Service Standards so that "each participant knows what to expect". A common concern amongst witnesses was the variable nature of the Minimum Service Standards set out separately by each of the 18 primes. The standards vary considerably in detail and specificity. Two examples are set out below, in full. Some lack detail and are vague, for example:
The Ingeus Customer Pledge

A flexible service that is convenient and accessible

A personalised package of support that is tailored to your needs

A professional Careers Academy and support to help you develop and progress in work

Priority access to exclusive job vacancies and job market information

Respect at all times and support to set your own goals

If you would like to make a complaint about the service you receive, please speak to an advisor or ask for a copy of our complaints procedure.

What we will do for you:

  • Keep in regular contact with you
  • Ensure you can easily contact us
  • Give you access to the tools and information you need
  • Encourage and act on your feedback or complaints
  • Protect your personal information
  • Provide you with equality of opportunity
  • Focus on your safety and welfare

Others are brief but contain some specific and measurable pledges, for example:


Meet with your personal Employment Adviser within ten days

Receive a full assessment of your needs and skills

Review your progress with your Adviser at least once every four weeks

Receive support to develop a tailored CV and job goals

Receive financial advice and support to show how you will be better off working

Be able to access e-learning, job search support and vacancies through our online portal

121.  Paul Anders of DrugScope felt that the vagueness of some Minimum Service Standards, combined with what he believed was an ineffective pricing structure, created a situation in which some participants "can receive an ineffective or [...] completely lacking service."[112] This view was supported by Duncan Shrubsole of Crisis, who argued that loosely defined Minimum Service Standards allowed providers to prioritise the relatively job-ready. In doing so they were "behaving entirely rationally" by "hedging the risks" involved in choosing which participants to support within the black box.[113] The mental health charity, Mind, was concerned that there was a lack of clarity and transparency in the Minimum Service Standards and therefore about the services to which participants were entitled. Mind also believed that this risked harder-to-help participants being parked.[114]

122.  Laura Dewar of SPAN highlighted that single parents, in particular, needed predictability about what was required of them and the services to which they were entitled, noting evidence from SPAN's research which showed that the single parents who fared best on the programme were those who "knew exactly what was on offer". Her view was that a suitable level of predictability could be achieved without precluding innovation or personalisation. [115]

123.  Kirsty McHugh of ERSA acknowledged that the detail in Minimum Service Standards varied between primes. We wanted to know whether the industry had considered establishing a single set of standards, which could be applied across all providers, to better protect all participants from being sidelined. She confirmed that there had been discussions about this within the industry, but explained that:

The problem with this is that the devil is often in the detail. You think, "Yes, that is a really good idea." Then you start drafting it, and it stops individual frontline advisers from doing what they need to do. We know for some people it is group work that is going to help motivate them and get them enthused and confident enough to be able to approach the workplace. With others it is one to one. If we put in minimum service standards that say you will see an adviser x amount of times, that may not be what they need.[116]

124.  We believe that the "black box" needs to be balanced by clear and measurable minimum standards so that participants know what to expect and the minimum level of service they are entitled to receive. Currently prime providers' Minimum Service Standards vary greatly in detail and measurability. Some Minimum Service Standards are so vague as to permit providers to virtually ignore some participants if they so choose. We understand the difficulties of establishing a single set of standards which could be applied by all providers but we believe it is achievable. For example, it would be perfectly possible for all providers to be required to have a face-to-face meeting to assess all participants' needs; to produce an employment action plan within a certain timeframe; and to have a face-to-face follow-up meeting, also within a specific timeframe. We recommend that DWP develop a core set of basic minimum standards applicable to all providers, and to which all Work Programme participants are entitled.

The type of services currently being provided

125.  Much of the evidence we received suggested that the Work Programme currently offered relatively light-touch and generic interventions. Tony Wilson's view was that so far the Work Programme was delivering "the same kind of stuff that has always been delivered", including "face-to-face adviser support, coaching, mentoring, help with job searches and CV building." These were all potentially effective options but the suite of interventions typically available suggested that there was little genuine personalisation in the Work Programme to date.[117] This analysis is supported by findings from the initial Work Programme evaluation. The evaluation team found consistent evidence of "process personalisation", such as each participant being allocated a named adviser and one-to-one, rather than group, sessions. However, researchers found limited evidence so far of "substantive personalisation" of the interventions used to support individual participants:

[...] advisers regretted that they were not able to provide more opportunities for specific training to meet individual needs. Rather, the courses they could offer tended to be generic, focused on employability skills and job application techniques.[118]

126.  We received relatively little evidence directly from individual Work Programme participants. The few submissions we did receive tended to report a negative experience of the Work Programme's ability to offer innovative and personalised services. For example, Ross Bradford, an ESA claimant who participated in the Work Programme from February to June 2012, told us that "There was no attempt to shape the service to suit my needs or even understand what those needs were." In June 2012 he was referred to Work Choice.[119] Douglas Coombs, a Work Programme participant since August 2011, believed that the services offered to him were "staid, old fashioned, inappropriate [and] ineffective".[120]

127.  Participants we met during our visits expressed mixed views about the level of service they had received from the Work Programme. None of the homeless people we spoke to during our visit to St Mungo's felt that the Work Programme had added significant value to their search for work. One ESA participant we spoke to in Brent had recently completed an employability course on the Work Programme and was about to undertake an IT course. Her Work Programme provider had also arranged for a mentor to advise her on the best ways to gain employment in social care, the sector in which she was most interested. She believed that these interventions had made her more job-ready but she had had to push her adviser to arrange them. She had found the more generic Work Programme activities, such as group sessions spent updating CVs and job-searching, less useful.

128.  A JSA participant in Brent was positive about the skills and attitudes of Work Programme advisers and, while most participants we spoke to felt that the quality of Work Programme advisers varied, some believed that they compared favourably with JCP advisers. All but one of the participants we met in Brent felt that Work Programme advisers had limited time for individual participants due to very high caseloads. Providers in Brent later confirmed that average caseloads per adviser were between 120 and 180 participants.

129.  As noted in chapter 2, Work Programme participants are randomly referred to one of the two or three primes operating in their area. The policy intention is that primes receive an equal number and random mix of referrals so that their performance can be easily compared. There is not currently the option for participants to choose a prime on the basis of the services offered or to switch between primes once they have been randomly referred. Some witnesses pointed out that an unintended consequence of randomised referrals was that participants are not always referred to the provision which best suits their needs. For example, Single Homeless Project noted that it was the only subcontractor in east London offering services specifically designed for homeless people but that homeless Work Programme participants were randomly referred to one of three primes operating in the east London CPA—two of which had no specialist homeless provision within their supply chains.[121]

130.  The Minister told us that introducing an element of choice for participants "might be" something DWP considers in the future but that it would be a "significant contractual change" and would require some "system changes". He believed that random allocation was the right approach for the Work Programme during the course of the current contracts.[122]

131.  Much of the evidence we received suggested that Work Programme advisers are highly-skilled and dedicated to supporting long-term jobseekers into sustained employment. However, with average caseloads of between 120 and 180, Work Programme advisers are being forced to prioritise whom they support. We recommend that DWP and the welfare-to-work industry devise ways of bringing Work Programme caseloads down.

132.  We understand the policy intention of randomly allocating Work Programme participants to one of the two or three prime contractors operating in each Contract Package Area (CPA); it ensures that each prime operating in the same area receives an equal number and similar mix of participants and therefore allows their performance to be more easily compared. However, we recommend that DWP explore options for introducing an element of choice of prime contractor for participants, particularly where it can be clearly demonstrated that specialist services which would benefit an individual participant are not offered by the prime to which they have been randomly referred but are available via one of the other primes operating in the same CPA.

Assuring service quality

133.   Tony Wilson of Inclusion argued that many welfare-to-work advisers are "absolutely brilliant at what they do" but that the industry could do more formally to accredit their skills and encourage continuing professional development. He highlighted that welfare-to-work was essentially a "people business" which needed "really successful, inspirational leadership" and "highly professional front-line advisers". He noted that the sector had started to move in this direction, through Institute of Employability Professionals (IEP) accreditation.[123] The IEP was established by the industry, with support from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, in June 2012 and offers professional accreditation and the opportunity to study for recognised qualifications.[124]

134.  OFSTED inspection of welfare-to-work provision was discontinued in 2010; responsibility for quality assurance now lies within DWP. However, Professor Sainsbury believed that "at the moment there is nothing built into the Work Programme design that has any measure of quality in it." His view was that DWP contract managers were focused predominantly on job outcome performance rather than service quality.[125] A wide range of witnesses felt that much more could be done to assure the quality of Work Programme services.[126]

135.  Some witnesses felt that it was important systematically to survey participants' satisfaction with the programme. Tony Wilson noted that this approach was taken in Australia, where participant satisfaction partly informs how providers' performance is assessed. Others favoured the reintroduction of an independent quality inspection regime, although expert witnesses did not believe that this should be delivered by OFSTED and also noted that an independent regime would inevitably come with significant costs. Ian Mulheirn favoured the introduction of systematic participant satisfaction surveys but was very wary of reintroducing independent quality inspection, explaining that:

There is a real danger that you get a tick-box attitude, which would be hugely expensive, hugely costly to monitor and would lead to resources being diverted to the wrong area. Mandation and minimum standards and ticking boxes might make us all feel better from the centre, but it will not solve any of the problems. The primary thing is sorting the prices out. The second thing is finding out from service users how the thing is performing from their perspective.[127]

136.  DWP defended its approach to assuring the quality of Work Programme services. It told us that it conducts a monthly survey of a sample of participants from each contract and ensures that providers "rectify any shortcomings identified".[128] Julia Sweeney, DWP's Contracted Customer Services Director, accepted that Minimum Service Standards varied between providers but she insisted that the Department's performance managers and assurance teams rigorously audited each provider according to the standards it had set out "so we can be assured that people are seeing their advisers regularly and that they are getting that service level." The Minister insisted that the minimum standards were clearly communicated to participants and that DWP took compliance with the standards set out by providers "very seriously".[129]

137.  There appears to be insufficient focus on, or responsibility for, Work Programme participants' satisfaction with the support they receive. We recommend that DWP require all prime providers to introduce standardised participant satisfaction surveys at appropriate intervals during each participant cohort's two-year attachment to the programme, including immediately after their initial attachment and at the end of the two-year attachment period. These surveys should form part of DWP's assessment of prime providers' effectiveness. It is important that the surveys ascertain how well participants understand: the purpose of the Work Programme and differentiate it from Jobcentre Plus services; why they were referred; and the level of service to which they are entitled. DWP should also be alert to the possibility that some participants will register their satisfaction with the programme merely because very little is expected of them and they are required to attend appointments with their adviser infrequently. Surveys must be designed to draw out these kinds of nuanced responses.

138.  We welcome steps taken by the welfare-to-work industry to professionalise its frontline workforce through accreditation and continuing professional development. We recommend that DWP and ERSA continue to move towards greater professionalism in the welfare-to-work sector, by encouraging appropriate training and accreditation for all frontline advisers, for example through the Institute of Employability Professionals and other specialist organisations.

104   DWP, The Work Programme Invitation to Tender: Specification and Supporting Information, December 2010, para 2.03 Back

105   Committee's 2011 Report, para 24 Back

106   Work and Pensions Committee, Sixth Special Report of Session 2010-12, Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1438, p 2 Back

107   Q 19 Back

108   Q 19 Back

109   Q 23 Back

110   Q 21 Back

111   Ev 123 Back

112   Q 97 Back

113   Q 97 Back

114   Q 97 [Sophie Corlett] Back

115   Q 97 Back

116   Q 358 Back

117   Q 20; see also London Voluntary Service Council, Ev w48, para 44 Back

118   DWP, Work Programme evaluation: Findings from the first phase of qualitative research on programme delivery , November 2012, para 14.1 Back

119   Ev w9 Back

120   Ev w27 Back

121   Ev w 75; see also Ev w10 (Anna Burke) Back

122   Qq 478-479 Back

123   Q 35 Back

124   See  Back

125   Q 26 Back

126   See, for example, Q 26 [Professor Sainsbury]; A4e, Ev w2; Locality, Ev w41 Back

127   Q 29 Back

128   Ev 121 Back

129   Q 525 Back

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Prepared 21 May 2013