Work Programme providers plead poverty

Don't hate the small charity players, hate the large corporate game.

The Guardian has a slightly strange write-up of a piece of research around the government's flagship Work Programme, which is aimed at getting long-term unemployed people back into work (although the initial statistics imply it is less than efficient at doing so). The programme is structured in a "black box" manner; providers are entitled to, within reason, offer whichever schemes they think will work best to participants, and are paid by result.

But, Patrick Butler writes:

Welfare firms are involved in widespread "gaming" of the Work Programme, with the most vulnerable jobseekers often ignored because they are too costly to help, according to new research into how the government's flagship employment initiative is working in practice.
Providers privately admit they are focusing resources on the "easy customers" who are more likely to generate a fee, and sidelining jobless clients who require more time and investment to become ready for work, a process known as "creaming and parking," the study says.
It concludes that the quality of services offered to jobseekers is being undermined because the design of the Work Programme, in which companies are not paid until customers have been in work for two years, creates such huge financial stresses that many providers have little option but to cut corners.

The last paragraph is not strictly true. Providers are paid periodically throughout the two years that participants are said to be active. They receive a referral fee when an unemployed person arrives on their books, and then further payments when they find that person work, and periodically while that person is in work up to the two year deadline, when they are deemed to be back in stable employment.

The most obvious way of gaming that system is indeed relatively frequent: taking the referral fee for a new "customer", and then proceeding to ignore them entirely. Since there is not a huge amount of variation in the fees depending on how difficult it might be to find work, that usually results in people who are scarred from the effects of long-term unemployment being taken into the programme and left languishing while their referral fees are used to subsidise training for more easy-to-help participants.

That wheeze is likely to be short lived, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it won't result in many people actually getting work, and so the workfare provider's overall statistics will look terrible. If the government has a modicum of competency, that will be taken into account when the next contracts go out.

Competency, of course, is not guaranteed, but luckily the referral fees were only ever intended to be short term. They are important to getting the scheme going, but the intention is that the training for one cohort of jobseekers should be paid for, not with the referral fees, but with the profit from the previous cohort. That way, the system is true payment by results: if you don't find someone a job, you don't get anything.

The gaming Butler describes is a different sort. The black-box model the Programme runs on allows providers to subcontract work; and that seems to be where the trouble is starting:

The study cites a small private-sector provider which complained that big corporate providers, known as "primes", would keep "job-ready" customers for themselves while passing on more difficult cases to subcontractors. "It's not being PC but I'll just say it as it is … you tend to get left with the rubbish; people who aren't going to get a job … If the [prime] thought they could get them a job, they wouldn't [refer them to] someone else to get a job."

That doesn't seem to be symptomatic of anything other than bad business on the part of the small private-sector provider. There's nothing making them subcontract with the big corporate providers. Presumably they thought they could make a profit. The fact that they can't on the terms they'd agreed just means they should draw up a better contract.

Just as we can hope the government will take performance into account when offering the next set of Work Programme contracts, the best situation for the subcontractors is to stop taking work from corporate providers who offer them bad terms. That is, after all, how capitalism works.

Not that it has to be that way. Not all of the workfare providers view their job as purely extracting profit from a badly designed system, and at least one major one largely foreswears the possibility of boosting income by gaming it. Unsurprisingly, it is not one of the providers backed by private equity.

The Work Programme is frequently poorly designed, and many — but not every — provider is out to milk it for all it's worth. But the problem with it isn't that there is isn't enough money floating in the system.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.