Comment piece: The problem solvers

The Work Programme isn’t working for those who need it most: residents facing a real challenge to access employment, especially those who are disabled or have a health condition. Recent research reveals less than one in four participants secured a sustained job outcome, below initial expectations for the scheme.

The ambition behind the Work Programme is, of course, commendable. But, to date, its design lacked three key ingredients. It hasn’t had enough investment to pay for the kind of support needed by those on the labour market’s distant margins. It hasn’t benefited from enough integration between employment support and skills and other public services – health, for example. It hasn’t been innovative enough in the sorts of support it offers.

Local problems are often best fixed by local solutions. Islington, the borough in which I live and work, is testament to this mantra. Counter to the stereotypes, deprivation is entrenched here. We have one of the UK’s highest levels of child poverty. The children going to our primary schools are among the most deprived in the country. Unemployment is also far too high – despite there being 1.3 local jobs for every person of working age.

If local problems are best fixed by local solutions, then, equally, a problem shared is a problem halved. Facing these challenges, in November 2014 we established the independent Islington Employment Commission. Under this banner, we brought together a team of established experts in their fields – from business, charities, colleges, think tanks, Trade Unions, the NHS, Jobcentre Plus and the council. Their task was to better understand unemployment in the borough and what could be done – at a local level – to reduce it.

A year later and this borough-wide partnership has helped over 1,000 local people into jobs. Many of these have been the result of efforts from our own iWork service, which, unlike typical employment support schemes, focusses on personalised coaching and mentoring of clients towards sustainable jobs. 

The council joined forces with Jobcentre Plus and the local Clinical Commissioning Group, to consider the challenge of supporting unemployed local residents with long-term health conditions into work. Now, we’re piloting a new scheme in which GPs can refer unemployed patients with long-term health conditions to intensive and personalised employment coaching, offered on a voluntary one-to-one basis at their doctor’s surgeries.

These efforts are the result of a combined appreciation that sometimes we have to reach out to those ‘hardest to reach’ and not always expect them to come to us. One of the failings of the Work Programme’s approach was the ‘cherry-picking’ encouraged by the payment-by-results model, which sees those people who are easier to get back to work prioritised, leaving people with more challenging barriers to work without the tailored support they need. Our approach called time on this failing in centrally-designed employment programmes.   

The story behind these shared successes is that they come from a whole community – the council, local businesses, the NHS, clinical commissioning groups, Jobcentre Plus, and charities and voluntary groups – working together in partnership to make the borough a better place and tackle a social issue that is everybody’s business. 

It is such local partnerships that have the appetite and expertise to better help residents facing long-term complex barriers to work. Our achievements are just the beginning. There is still much to do and we can’t do it alone. The freedom to create local solutions to solve local problems is vital, but these solutions only work when entire communities come together, like they have in Islington.

We will continue working to encourage government to devolve powers, so local areas like ours can have more control over employment services. As Islington has shown, local services working together are better placed to help people find and keep secure jobs, all of which will help to transform the lives of people that want to work.

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