What does the Work Programme mean for open policy?Posted: August 2, 2012
In this recent series of posts we’ve been exploring the tensions between two competing Government agendas – open public services and open policy making. In this post we examine these tensions in more detail, using a flagship Government policy – the Work Programme to tackle long-term worklessness.
The Work Programme is regarded by Government and others as a model of outsourcing that should be replicated in other areas of public services. The Economist magazine has predicted that £58 billion of public services will be outsourced by 2015 as part of the Government’s agenda for ‘open public services’, on top of the £82 billion already outsourced (according to Oxford Economics). Much of the comment surrounding the Work Programme has focused on what it means for the future of outsourcing – but what does it also suggest about the potential for open policymaking?
The Work Programme is a £5 billion initiative that has been heralded as the most radical attempt by UK government to address long-term worklessness. It is based on the principle that government will get out-of-the-way and will financially reward providers who perform. The Government has argued that delivery of this programme should be outsourced rather than delivered in-house, because this will drive innovation and significantly improve performance compared to previous programmes such as Flexible New Deal. Responsibility for both delivery and risk has been transferred to large generally private prime contractors who are largely paid on results, that is the number of people entering into work and keeping their job for up to two years.
However, one of the striking things about the Work Programme, given its size and remit, is the lack of publicly available performance data. This seems to run counter to what the Government has said about the importance of open data, transparency and now open policy. For example, the Government’s Open Public Services White Paper states that ‘Provides of public services from all sectors will need to publish information on performance and user satisfaction’ – yet the same emphasis isn’t always apparent when it comes to this flagship Government programme.
Effective transparent scrutiny of the Work Programme is difficult because providers are not able to share data about what is working and what isn’t. They are required to sign comprehensive contracts, which prevent them from sharing performance data unless it is already in the public domain. Provides face serious consequences if they flout these rules especially if they generate ‘adverse publicity’ for the programme. Nonetheless, some data have trickled out, and the first analysis of performance was released by the Department for Work and Pensions earlier in the summer. This followed a data set released by trade body ERSA in May. ERSA and the Department estimate that one in four people are going into work after being attached to the programme for six months.
The Government has argued that there are complications in releasing timely data about the Work Programme, both because it is new and because there are customers coming onto the programme all of the time, which can distort the overall impression regarding its performance. The Minister responsible, Chris Graying, in evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in March this year argued that his Department is publishing data about the Work Programme in accordance with Office of National Statistics guidelines covering both what, when and how statistics are published. However, a careful reading of his evidence might suggest that the ONS rules don’t actually prevent DWP from releasing Work Programme performance data – in other words, that the Department has more room for maneuver than the Minister appears to suggest. We’d be happy to be corrected on this interpretation – if someone from DWP or indeed ONS wants or is allowed to get in touch.
What is certainly true is that it is still very difficult, a year into the Work Programme, to build an accurate picture of whether the policy is in any way on course to deliver against its original objectives. This vacuum of information is creating a lot of unease about the policy. It has been left to the likes of the National Audit Office and the Social Market Foundation to fill the gap – much to the chagrin of the Government. A report from the NAO earlier this year stated that the Government’s assumptions about the Work Programme were over-ambitious, and that only 26% of job seekers would secure work compared to the Department’s target of 40%.
Given the scale of investment in this programme, both political and financial, it is unsurprising that there is so much interest in this policy – and so many demands for more openness and transparency. There are legitimate questions to be answered as to whether the Work Programme is working in the way it was intended. A number of charities have pulled out of the programme whilst others have gone bust because of the financial constraints of the payment by results model used in the programme. St Mungo’s, a well-respected charity is the latest example to pull out after failing to receive any referrals. The NCVO has also raised a number of concerns from their members about how the programme is being implemented. Given this level of public interest and concern, lack of transparency becomes counter-productive – rather than reducing possibly inaccurate comment and analysis, it only serves to increase it.
The Work Programme points to a real tension between the Government’s open policy and open public services agendas. The Government wants to create a vibrant and efficient market of providers for outsourced public services. It also says it wants the performance of providers to be transparent and open to public scrutiny. But if other, equally important areas of provision such as reducing re-offending, public health, skills, and drug and alcohol recovery employ the Work Programme model, this suggests that open policy in public services will be severely limited, and that the public will know less than they should about what their money is funding and what the results are.