As we bid farewell to 2014, listen to intensified talk of devolution and anticipate a 2015 general election, more questions than answers arise around the future of ‘employment support’ services.  Even the fact that we are now using the term ‘employment support’, instead of ‘welfare to work’, indicates that significant changes are already underway.

As we reflect on the current situation, unemployment is down and employment up, which in no small measure is thanks to tens of thousands of dedicated individuals and teams delivering the Work Programme.  However, youth unemployment remains an immediate and long-term concern, and extended unemployment persists for many with deeper and more complex challenges yet to overcome. And the employment, health, housing, criminal rehabilitation and skills systems remain frustratingly disjointed. (Please sort out data-sharing protocols DWP! Please align skills incentives! And please do more than just talk about co-commissioning).

As we look to 2015, some might say that the whole system is in desperate need of reformation. And perhaps even Jobcentre Plus itself.  Because, while Jobcentres are good at moving people off-benefits and have some dedicated, caring and very effective personnel, they simply cannot deal with the needs of employers in a way that the new Universal Credit regime increasingly requires.  Indeed, Universal Credit shifts where the whole operational focus needs to be (for both Jobcentre Plus and third party providers). Currently, Jobcentre Plus just doesn’t provide the in-work-support, skills or ‘progression’ services and yet, these will be vital future focal areas for achieving redefined objectives around ‘sustainable employment’.

As people move into work but not ‘off of benefits’, the current Jobcentre Plus KPIs become increasingly meaningless. In addition, a general slowdown in social mobility (of both individuals and families) and a fast- growing skills deficit, are further compelling reasons for whole-system reform.  On a practical level, can Jobcentre Plus really hope to cope with the deepening demands of the ‘hardest to help’ in our society while cutting Disability and Lone Parent Employment Advisors and operating tighter and tighter jobseeker support services?  So cue the opportunity to now outsource more of the people-facing elements of Jobcentre Plus ‘employment support’ services and to upgrade the financial incentives for charities, public bodies and private providers to provide these services (PBR in its current application just isn’t the intended panacea)).

In future, third party providers should be able to deliver employment programmes much earlier in a jobseeker’s journey (from day one across all cohorts). Jobcentre Plus should look more like a ‘community hub’, making day-one and detailed assessments of jobseeker needs and then immediately streaming them.  The Jobcentres should only handle day-one-assessments, initial streaming, ongoing benefits claims and the administration of sanctions, with only a core management team overseeing specialist and mainstream outsourced provision.

Each ‘Jobcentre’ (would we call them that anymore? How about ‘Health, Employment and Learning Places (HELPs!)?) should deal with the ‘whole person’ under one roof, via a local partnership; offering access and informed signposting to a fully outsourced and locally-assembled set of holistic services pertaining to; employability, skills, health, money/budget/debt management (including better-off-in-work calculations), offender rehabilitation, housing, substance dependency, troubled families, volunteering and local, innovative initiatives designed to engage, motivate and offer specialist and employer-responsive support.

Change is needed. Without substantial redesign, can the ‘employment support’ system really be considered as ‘fit for purpose’?