Revolution! Can we build a system that helps everyone?

21 June 2018

When offering to write a blog on how to fix the entire system, some of my team thought me mad.  Surely designing a system that works for everybody is akin to promising world peace – inherently controversial, mind-blowingly expensive and impossible to achieve?  However – and I believe this strongly – keeping that ambition is vital if we are going to build a productive post Brexit economy, which keeps pace with technology and is both inclusive and transparently fair.

The price of not doing this could be devastating and not just because the UK would fall further down the global productivity rankings or rack up a larger trade deficit. I suspect there could be profound social consequences too. As widely commented, there appears to be deep social concern in many developed economies. In the UK, this clearly manifested itself through the Brexit vote, has been powerfully articulated by young people saddled by debt and high livings costs and can be felt in communities coping with the changing nature of work, insecure and low paid employment.  This isn’t how many want to live.  Instead, UK citizens want to feel invested in and to believe that the support is there for them and their children to have a good education, to have a fighting chance of gaining and keeping quality work which pays enough for a decent life, and that, when they retire – at an acceptable age – there is enough money to live with dignity.

So what are the elements of such a system?

I think most of us could agree on these regardless of our political persuasion.  Such a system has great early years provision and support for parents.  It features uniformly good schools, which marry high quality academic teaching with inspirational careers advice and employability support.  It has parity of esteem between academic and vocational pathways, with mechanisms to switch between the two.  It provides top quality up to date labour market information, accessible to everyone regardless of age or location.  It sees citizens as assets to be invested in and nurtured, but also to be empowered and respected.  It accepts that people make mistakes and some of us need second, third and even fourth chances to build successful lives.  It understands that life is (if we’re lucky) long and complicated, that life events must be accommodated and that we might well need help to reinvent ourselves along the way.

However, this isn’t quite the system that we appear to have built, regardless of the UK being one of the wealthiest on the globe. So what needs to happen?

First, I’d argue, that we must bring back the concept of early intervention – the invest to save approach which was once flavour of the month and now appears, with a few honourable exceptions, to be yesterday’s news.  Why this obviously sensible idea has fallen out of favour is a cautionary tale, one with public policy routes leading back several decades and which ends with HM Treasury.  Regardless, the result is the fashionable requirement to prove a clear return on investment, ideally with cashable savings and which avoids paying for ‘deadweight’ – that which would have happened anyway.  However, this approach simply doesn’t help society as it tends to ignore the complexity of human beings, insists on boiling everything down to a number and can be used as an argument for doing nothing at all.  To my mind, earlier specialist help for children struggling at school, for young people whose working lives are failing to launch or those at risk of falling out of the labour market must be on the agenda.

Second, we must listen to the evidence.  This means not ignoring inconvenient truths (prison doesn’t work, the apprenticeship target has perverse consequences, sanctions cause poverty) or pinning hopes on magic game changers (Universal Credit) and it also means gathering evidence longer term and acting on results. That can be inherently difficult.  Policymakers can get locked into ways of seeing (commissioning must be a certain way), there can be powerful forces protecting the status quo (jobcentres are best), whilst politicians are all too aware of the potential lifetime of their spell in office (seven DWP secretaries of state in ten years, nine employment ministers and seven skills ministers).  Big data can be revolutionary in this area.  However, I’d argue this must be married with the intimate stuff – listening to individual voices to learn how the world seems to them.

Next, we need a far stronger partnership between national and local, with both sides working together rather than inhabiting a place of conflict. This means layers of government understanding each other better, more interchange of personnel and the development of strategies and approaches together rather than in isolation.  That would avoid government looking bemused when local authorities fail to mainstream great ideas developed in central government or local authorities’ complaint that money is being (mis)spent locally outside their orbit.  Clearly this is an area where combined authorities are making process, though perhaps despite rather than because of central government.

Finally, I think we need a national conversation about how we invest in the employment, skills and enterprise system, including the role of the employer and the individual vis-à-vis the state.  This must start to develop a culture where early intervention, second chances and constant reinvention are the norm and which places us in a better place to meet the challenges presented by Brexit.  This will need inspirational, perhaps even revolutionary, leadership.  Steady as it goes won’t cut it. Muddling through won’t cut it either.  But there is an opportunity, if we choose to seize it.

Kirsty McHugh

Chief Executive, ERSA

Join Kirsty at our Employment and Skills Convention on 10 July at the Royal Society. We’ll have debates, contributions from politicians and leading thinkers, and masterclasses and presentations on best practice from around the country. This inaugural convention, built on the fifteen year history of our IntoWork Conventions, will tackle the big questions around employment and skills. More information on this event is available here.