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These are the personal views of Mark Cosens MA MIEP @MarkCosens. Mark works for Inspire 2 Independence (i2i). i2i’s latest report on DWP Future Commissioning can be found here: http://www.enteri2i.com/metadot/index.pl?id=13716;isa=DBRow;op=show;dbview_id=2210

The two main employment support programmes, Work Programme and Work Choice, in the UK are coming to their contractual end. This is a time for the government and DWP to reflect on what they have learnt over the previous five years, and develop support that can build on this knowledge. One of the biggest questions is whether to keep two programmes, dividing jobseekers with severe disabilities onto one, and the remaining long term jobseekers onto the others, or develop one programme, that can be adapted to the needs of all those on it.

The biggest programme in town, the Work Programme, has so far helped 731,000 jobseekers into work. In its early days, Work Programme received heavy media criticism, but the programme was new, benchmarks were arbitrary, there was a steep recession and too few people had actually been on-programme long enough to register any ‘outcomes’ in DWP statistics, which is normally when a jobseeker has been in work for at least 6 months. Four years on, overall performance is strong. Latest DWP figures (September2015) show there are now more Work Programme participants achieving sustained job-outcomes than through any previous, comparable programme.

However, recently, referrals have fallen dramatically, falling by 70% in some places, and people on the programme are now mostly the ‘hardest to-help’ (over 2/3 have health conditions). These factors, along with a 100% Payment-By-Results (PBR) funding model, mean that some providers are starting to fail commercially, some are closing offices or reducing services to part-time hours and some are being consolidated in mergers and acquisitions. Ironically, despite overall success, too few people are now joining to make Work Programme operationally viable.

The second biggest employment support programme is Work Choice, which helps jobseekers with disabilities and more severe health conditions. Although a much smaller, voluntary programme, with 114,000 referrals to date, it offers ‘supported employment’ for disabled people as part of a more specialised/prescribed programme of delivery.

By 2017 Work Programme and Work Choice will end and providers are waiting to hear what government plans to implement to follow on.

Retain two main programmes
One idea is to move jobseekers receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA) who would have been referred to Work Programme onto Work Choice, to therefore create a larger Work Choice and smaller Work Programme. This would mean continuing with two programmes in an era of austerity, which may not be a realistic prospect and it is questionable whether there would be too few jobseekers to fill two programmes. Work Choice would be expensive to expand and Work Programme relies on some economies of scale to be viable. It also isn’t clear that the provider-base could adjust to a wholly revised market-structure.

One main programme
An alternative is to merge Work Choice into an ‘evolved’ Work Programme. This would simplify services for participants, employers and stakeholders (including commissioners). It would be crucial not to lose health-expertise and ‘supported’ employment’ but they could be written into an enhanced specification requirement to explicitly cater for participants with deeper support needs. The best of current Work Choice providers could also win some contracts/subcontracts under the new programme. In my view, this would unify the sector, consolidate it around lower jobseeker volumes and send a more inclusive message. Additional incentives could be built-in to increase volunteering within the new programme (Work Programme already has an element of volunteer participation for certain ESA groups). For people with the severest of disabilities, DWP could expand eligibilities for an expanded Specialist Employment Support programme and flexibility would still remain to carry out complementary co-commissioning (with Local Authorities, Housing Associations, NHS…)

It’s crucial that DWP should bring the successful provider-base together to deliver an enhanced service. I believe this would be stronger under one main programme that is financially viable to operate. It is doubtful that Work Choice could be dramatically expanded and still perform for a much broader cross-section of harder to help jobseekers. Many Work Programme providers are doing their best to develop health expertise. An improved, combined programme, with an updated funding mechanism, stronger specification around health and enhanced minimum service standards would enable much more to be achieved, including for those with health challenges and disabilities.