This piece of writing is part of a series of blogs designed to stimulate discussion around the five key elements of the ERSA Manifesto: commissioning, complex needs, skills, employer needs, youth employment. Any opinions represented within this blog are the authors and do not represent the views of ERSA.

Under new laws, motorists are to get a ten minute ‘grace period’ during which they can avoid getting hit by fines when their council parking tickets run out. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC foundation, said “The shame is that we have required ministerial intervention to tackle the ‘rules are rules’ culture which can result in heavy handed and disproportionate penalties.”

Our recent report Responsive Welfare discusses how this ‘rules are rules’ culture is problematic for many Citizens Advice clients who interact with the welfare system, especially those who have complex needs. Rather than ministerial intervention, we, like Professor Glaister, would like to see to see a flexible approach when it comes to support, and the introduction of an intelligent front line in Jobcentre Plus.

This suggestion emerged from our experience as a service, where advisers regularly tell us about problems caused by a heavily prescriptive set of rules which advisers have little choice but to follow. A one size fits all system cannot possibly take account of the range of problems that people often face, and the complexity of the system means that people are too often punished for making genuine mistakes.  On average, our advice sessions begin with a client articulating one problem, and end with the adviser uncovering three. It is therefore imperative that whoever is involved in front line employment support has the flexibility to properly assess barriers, and prescribe the right kind of support for the individual or family.

In the report, we talk about Colin, a client from Derbyshire who was sanctioned for four weeks because he forgot to check a box in his online job search. The application of a sanction might be the ‘right’ decision, but is it going to move Colin closer to the labour market? Should we not have a system where the job coach who knows Colin is able to differentiate between a mistake and deliberate non-compliance, and decide upon appropriate action on that basis? Colin is not alone. Last year our advisers helped with an average of 1,300 Jobseekers Allowance sanction issues each month.

Working at the front line is a crucial role in our welfare system, and, we argue, one which deserves substantial investment. The long term aim should be to have a front line which is characterised by staff who have high levels of emotional intelligence, a rounded view of human nature and reserves of patience and empathy. We argue that the model at Jobcentre Plus should be closer to that of nursing or social work, where there is an emphasis on consistency but room for choice.

To help pay for a long term shift to an intelligent front line, we suggest two other major changes to the welfare system. First, the introduction of greater local differentiation, in recognition that different places experience different types of problems and local leaders are best placed to solve them. Second, a move to building open digital services which are rooted in how people think; and have the potential to, for example, match local skills to local employers, or local childcare providers to busy parents. Our vision is that open digital services will help those who need little support, freeing up resource for an intelligent front line to offer tailored support for those who need it. That means we could end the ‘rules are rules’ culture that hampers progress for many of our clients- like Clive, who came into Southport CAB after receiving a four week sanction for being late for a work focussed interview at Jobcentre Plus. If we recognise that motorists make mistakes and shouldn’t be punished unduly for being a few minutes late, surely we should apply the same recognition to people like Clive.

Steven Law
Policy researcher
Families, Welfare and Work
Citizens Advice