This piece of writing is part of a series of blogs designed to stimulate discussion around the five key elements of the ERSA Manifesto: commissioning, complex needs, skills, employer needs, youth employment. Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.

It is inevitable that a scheme as large and complex as the Work Programme, dealing with a critical issue such as employment, will divide opinions. Advocates will quite rightly point to latest figures which show that 680,000 individual jobseekers have now entered work via the Work Programme, with 401,000 of those sustaining that employment. They may also highlight last year’s report from the NAO (an organisation that isn’t exactly known for sugar coating its judgements) which concluded that performance is broadly comparable to previous programmes and was continuing to improve.

That is positive news but it should not be the limit of our ambitions, particularly as the NAO also reported that the programme needs to do more to support harder-to-help groups. Fortunately, the route to improving performance in this area is clear. Charities, which are often best placed to support those who are further from the jobs market, have reported referrals to be significantly below expectations, with some pulling out of the programme all together. The question is how we can ensure that charities are more involved in service delivery?

The answers can be found in the NCVO report, Stepping Stones, which we published last year.

Co-design of services
Pre-procurement dialogue with voluntary organisations would enable them to advise on service users’ needs and to contribute to service design. This would ensure that outcomes are developed with a better understanding of the barriers facing those with multiple and complex needs; it would also provide commissioners with insight into the structure and capacity of the voluntary sector provider market.

Local and specialist
To bid for a prime contract on the Work Programme, organisations had to have an annual turnover of over £20 million, excluding the vast majority of the voluntary sector. Disaggregating national contracts, into smaller, local contracts or developing a parallel funding stream, would enable local and specialist charities to play a full role in the programme.

Flexible payment models
For those with the most complex needs, the journey can be just as important as the destination but this is not recognised by the payment model. Payments-by-results contracts also exclude the many voluntary organisations that lack access to capital and financial capability. For the smallest providers the use of grants or service fees would be most appropriate. For other charities, a hybrid model whereby they are paid a proportion of their fee upfront, followed by payments linked to the individual service user journey towards and into employment could be appropriate.

Thorough needs assessment
The Work Programme categorises service users into payment groups according to their benefit status. However, the benefits claimed by a service user may not fully reflect their needs or barriers to employment. At an early stage, Job Centre Plus staff should assess and categorise service users’ needs. It would also enable the payment level attached to each individual to better reflect the level and cost of support they require.

Designing an effective welfare to work programme is not easy and criticisms are inevitable. The important thing is to learn from mistakes, as well as successes, and continuously strive for improvement. The above are relatively small steps that could make a big difference and we hope to see them incorporated into the design of the Work Programme’s replacement.