Welfare-to-Work Programmes: No easy jobseekers, no easy answers

30 September 2015

Changing Lives

Welfare-to-Work programmes improve learning and employment prospects for individuals (and sometimes whole families). Caring, professional advisors support people who have barriers to working and up-skilling. This saves taxpayers by reducing the benefits bill. Programmes are delivered by public, third and private sector organisations. Many have developed deep expertise, including health-related support.

Several Programme Types

DWP Work Programme has helped 1.76M, mostly-mandated, longer-term jobseekers. In its early days, Work Programme received heavy media criticism, but the programme was new, benchmarks were arbitrary, there was steep recession and too few people had actually been on-programme long enough to register any ‘outcomes’. Four years on, overall performance is transparently 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 (>70% in some places) and people on-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. Plus, performance targets are only-just being achieved for mandated ESA Claimants due to a lack of funding in the programme to reduce advisor caseloads, pay for specialised health/disability expertise, test innovative approaches to ‘supported employment’ and convince employers to take on ‘disadvantaged’ candidates. Consensus is that more could be achieved for ESA claimants, but that Work Programme is currently structurally and commercially constrained.

DWP Work Choice helps jobseekers with disabilities and more severe health conditions. Although a much smaller, voluntary programme (it has helped c.210,000) it offers ‘supported employment’ for disabled people as part of a more specialised/prescribed programme of delivery.

DWP Specialist Employability Support(SES) is another programme for people with even greater barriers to work,  supporting c.3400 people with hearing, visual or pan-disabilities.

Localised Programmes are also commissioned by DWP, ESF, SFA, Big Lottery, Local Authorities and other commissioners, including for jobseekers with health conditions e.g. ‘Working Well’ in Greater Manchester, ‘Working Capital’ in London, IPS Pilots…

Decision Time 

By 2017 Work Programme and Work Choice will end. So what next?

Retain Two Main Programmes: One idea is to merge the ESA element of Work Programme with Work Choice to create a larger Work Choice and smaller Work Programme (assuming sufficient ESA claimants volunteer). This would mean continuing with two programmes in an era of austerity, which may not be a realistic prospect. Plus, 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. Plus, Universal Credit will steadily replace JSA and ESA, so a smarter system would be to refer on the basis of more than just benefit-type.

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 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 SES programme and flexibility would still remain to carry out complementary co-commissioning (with Local Authorities, Housing Associations, NHS…)


DWP should bring the successful provider-base together to deliver an enhanced service. 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 and enhanced Minimum Service Standards would enable much more to be achieved, including for those with health challenges and disabilities.


These are the personal views of Mark Cosens MA MIEP @MarkCosens. Mark works for Inspire 2 Independence (i2i). Read i2i’s latest report on DWP Future Commissioning.