Blog written by Tony Wilson, Director, Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

On pretty much every count, this has been an awful Christmas.  So when I got an advance peek of the Restart specification a week or so ago, I must admit I opened it with a mix of fear and trepidation.  As anyone who was involved in Work Programme procurement would tell you, it wouldn’t be the first time that DWP had ruined Christmas.

It turns out though that I needn’t have worried: Christmas had come early (sort of).  Because Restart looks really good.  There are things to improve on, and one or two things that I fear we can’t fix, but overall there is a lot to welcome in its design – and a lot that providers will be able to build on to make it a success.

First, perhaps most importantly, it is relatively well resourced – with funding per participant of up to £2,000, to provide up to twelve months of support.  Even after discounting, it will be at least twice as well funded as the Work Programme – where spending was on average £1,400 and had to cover two years of support.  More funding means smaller caseloads and more scope to personalise and tailor support, which in turn means more people in work.

Welcome too is the introduction of clear minimum service standards across the programme – with a requirement for fortnightly contact, monthly face-to-face meetings, and to have access to “personalised support tailored to meet the needs of each participant”.  This isn’t (just) about encouraging providers to do what works.  More importantly, it also ensures that those who don’t get a job – which will be the majority – don’t become even more detached and more disadvantaged as time goes on.  This absence of clear and consistent standards in the Work Programme was arguably its biggest failing, with our evaluation finding that while 60% of participants reported that they were seen fortnightly, the ones that weren’t were more likely to be disadvantaged in the labour market (and in particular, to be aged over 50).

Restart improves on previous programmes in other ways too.  I was really pleased to see that conditionality and sanctions has been dialled right down, with a far greater emphasis on positive engagement.  Benefit conditions play an important role in our system and have done for a hundred years.  But relying on ‘mandation’ and applying sanctions is a sign of failure rather than success, and should always be a last resort. This different emphasis will put far more of a premium on service design, quality and engagement – and Restart will be better for it.

I was also pleased to see the emphasis that the Department has put on working in partnership with local government, Local Enterprise Partnerships and with employers.  Inevitably, Restart has been very centralised in its design and commissioning – but now more than ever it needs to be local in its delivery.  The Contract Package Areas are still far too big, but there’s undoubtedly more scope to form partnerships within them and to link up with recovery boards and local support.  This won’t be straightforward and will take time, but more money in Restart means there’s far more scope to co-fund and co-design local offers. And with two local government representatives assessing bids in each CPA, anyone thinking that they can fudge this will get found out pretty quickly.

But while so much of Restart is welcome, I do also have three big concerns.

The first is around timing.  On paper, Restart will go live in July 2021 and will support benefit claimants who have been unemployed for at least twelve months.  We can’t say for sure how many people will fit that bill, but we do know that between April and July 2020, 2.4 million people started new claims in the relevant benefit groups. So if one in ten go on to become long-term unemployed (which based on past experience is a pretty reasonable guesstimate) then we would need around a quarter of a million places.  However in practice, the Department is expecting just 8,300 places to be available in July (and I suspect that even this may be optimistic). 

So Restart will take time to get going, meaning that most people will wait 18 months to get onto it rather than the 12 months that have been advertised.  There’s little that we can do about this now, but it does mean that many participants will be very long-term unemployed.

The second issue is on support for those who are most disadvantaged.  The long-term unemployed are a diverse group with a range of needs, and we know that large scale, mainstream, payment-by-results programmes don’t always cater that well for differences.  Things like specialist advisers, smaller caseloads and access to more tailored support – for older people, those with health conditions, lone parents, the lowest qualified – can all make a real difference.

Within Restart though, there’ll be only one set of minimum standards and one large payment group.  Instead of disaggregating these to reflect the needs of specific groups, the Department appears to be putting its faith in an innovative ‘accelerator’ model that pays more for the more outcomes that you achieve.  However if we learnt one thing above all from the Work Programme, it was that innovative funding models encourage providers to play it safe rather than take a risk. 

My third issue is around decent work. This crisis has shone a light on the extent and damaging consequences of insecure work, particularly for the low paid, and it looks very likely that the recovery will see many working shorter hours, with less security and lower pay than they want or need.  To its credit, the government has been increasingly focused on how our employment and skills services can support decent work and progression, particularly coming out of this crisis – so it’s baffling that the only outcome measure in Restart will be achieving £3,700 in earnings over the eighteen months after starting the programme.  There’ll be no sustainment payments as in the Work Programme, no outcomes linked to better work (as in London’s devolved Work and Health Programme), no measurement of job quality at all.  In effect, any job will do.

All told, then, Restart isn’t perfect – but these criticisms shouldn’t detract from the many positives in its design: it’s clear that officials and Ministers have followed the evidence, learnt from the past and taken on board people’s views on what’s needed.

What’s even clearer, though, is that the Department wants and expects bidders to go beyond the minimum requirements, and to make sure that Restart lives up to its potential. So for anyone thinking of bidding, as a prime or in a supply chain, then the early New Year gives us a great opportunity to do that – which in particular means ensuring that Restart will work for the most disadvantaged, that we put partnerships and localism at its heart, and that we’re working closely with employers to meet their needs and to support decent and rewarding work.

In the meantime though, after a long and difficult year, we all deserve a break this Christmas – and to come back ready to make a difference.

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