It’s that time of the year. General Election, Labour leadership campaign and summer recess over. Back to the grindstone. Back to Parliament and into party conference season, where debates will be held, messages broadcast and policies discussed and agreed.
So what, you might ask? Why should we care?
Outside of the day job, I’ve spent time involved in political campaigning. I’ve always been surprised when people say, ‘I’m just not interested in politics’. I can understand why modern politics turns people off, but I usually quietly think something along the lines of ‘well, don’t get ill/go to university/send your kids to school/etc’.
When it comes to those who work in employment related services, I’m less sympathetic. Like it or loathe it, it impacts every aspect of pretty much everything we do. If I’m disappointed to hear this from anyone who works in the sector, I’m always staggered when I encounter it from those in positions of leadership.
So, why does it matter?
There’s literally nothing important in our sector that isn’t influenced by the actions of our politicians. For example:
1. The number, type, quality and sustainability of jobs in the labour market.
2. The level of investment in active labour market programmes.
3. The number, type, shape, geography, targets and payment schedule of those programmes. Not to mention who buys them.
4. The shape and state of the welfare system and the balance of rights and responsibilities shared between citizen and state.
5. The shape of the employment related services market – public, private, voluntary, or mixed economy?
We have a voice
So, it’s important, not just that we pay attention, but that we are involved in the debate. Guess what? We’re the experts. This is what we do. And we’ve been doing it for a while. Between us, we’ve seen programmes come and programmes go (along with governments) and – if we put our minds to it – we know what works and what needs fixing.
And politicians should listen
That’s not to say that they don’t, of course. There are MPs on both sides of the House who are both extremely interested in what we do and eager to learn more about it. But more of them could listen more (and more carefully). I sat at a roundtable last year, with some of the most experienced figures in the sector and listened to a fresh-faced policy advisor telling us that really, the Work Programme was the first time we’d ever delivered a back-to-work programme in this country.
It’s absolutely right that our work is a political issue. Because what we do and how we do it is about our social compact, rights and responsibilities, support for the vulnerable, regenerating our communities and growing our economy. It should be governed by those with a mandate to govern and represent.
But we all need to speak wisely
None of us should abuse the platform we are given. My heart sinks when I hear a politician playing to the gallery – reducing a complex issue to something simple, political and often divisive (too often the case on issues relating to the welfare state). It sinks in equal measure when I hear a senior figure within the sector playing to a blatantly commercial or sectoral vested interest.
We should offer our experience and our evidence to help make services better – not simply protect or grow our bottom line or suggest the line of least resistance. Likewise our political colleagues should make sure they focus on evidence-based policy making, rather than policy-based evidence making.
Don’t miss the party
So, yes, we should be attending the party conferences and engaging with the political process more generally. There’s a lot at stake and a lot that’s up for debate. We’ve a new government with a pretty clear agenda and an opposition that will be looking to stake out its own in the coming months. ‘Work Programme Plus’ – or whatever is coming next – is not set in stone. We’ve got a chance in the next few months to shape the future. We are in one of those moments when the pieces are genuinely in flux and we have a chance to reorder them before they settle again. We owe it to the people that work in our sector, the citizens whose taxes fund the work we do and the jobseekers we serve.
ThinkWinDo is leading public services consultancy, providing expert advice and support for organisations delivering employment related services. We keep things simple, we understand the evidence, we tell it like it is and we get things done. If you want to think deeper, win bigger and do better, we want to work with you. For more information, please visit: www.thinkwindo.com.
By George Selmer, Director, ThinkWinDo