“Are we fetishising co-location?”

5 May 2016

“Are we fetishising co-location?” asked Karen Buck, MP and member of the DWP Select Committee. I was watching the evidence session live yesterday morning because Tony Wilson, Learning and Work’s Policy and Research Director, was giving evidence and I was delighted with the question (and with Tony’s answer of course). 

The session was part of an inquiry into the future of Jobcentre Plus (JCP) and the Committee members had made clear that their concerns about the scale and deliverability of the changes in train – roll-out of Universal Credit, introduction of a new delivery model for Work Coaches, dealing with long-term unemployed claimants in-house and co-location of JCP offices with other services.

I was delighted with the co-location question becuase much of the debate so far smacks too much of de-centralisation of services which are still designed, managed and monitored from Whitehall, rather than of proper devolution. As Partick Hughes, another witness and former JCP London Region Director, put it, what’s needed is a culture change i nwhich we “give permission to local staff” to flex their work alongside other services in the context of the local labour market and to the benefit of local people. That’s not part of the change being proposed at the moment. If it was then opening hours, joint targers and new working practices would all be part of the devolution discussions and agreements. 

There has been insufficient debate about devolition in relation to JCP. The City Deals have all be commendably bottom-up, but have lacked clarity on the role of JCP, its services and the national targets and outcomes which it will work to. Without that clarity, we have seen progress on co-location but little progress on true integration of services. True integration would result in a very difference experience for job seekers and those looking for pay progression. Would they care whether their support was coming from somebody who worked for JCP or the local authority or a local charity, or an independent company? Would it matter to them if they ‘counted’ for a target owned by one or other of those organisations? I think not and yet we seem to have lost sight of that requirement. 

Tony once again put the case for more investment in a ‘what works’ resource. We know that there is lots of good practice across the JCP network, with local staff doing great things. The trouble is that it rarely gets documented and evaluated and even more rarely does it get shared and replicated. Investment nationally in finding what works (across the UK and beyond), evaluating it, sharing it and helping others to learn from it would be a big step forward.

There was another strong theme running through the session which pointed to the tension between JCP as a gatekeeper of a compliance-based benefits system and its growing or potential role as a true public employment service, supporting people to find work and better pay. The former might be more about rules, regulations and sanctions in which the targets are relatively simple and absolute. The latter, more about relationships over time, supporting people to navigate their ways through learning, skills, labour markets and promotions and requiring more sophisticated local labour market outcome agreements. I suspect that this tension is simply too difficult to address at the moment, but will surely emerge the more JCP tries to support people already in work?

So in answer to Karen Buck, I do think we are in danger of fetishising co-location, however useful it might be, because it is not a sufficient step in helping people find good work and progressing at work.