In 2010 the world changed. Thirteen years of Labour Government was swept aside and we embarked on the unknown territory of a coalition government.

The world changed for me too.  In November 2010, I became chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association and threw myself into the world of employment support.

Hitherto my world had been, to use the jargon, ‘place based’. I had, directly before, been Director of Regeneration at a national charity for nine years, working in some of the most deprived parts of England.  I had also served as a local authority councillor in London, where amongst various posts, I’d been Cabinet Member for Regeneration.  I won’t bore you with the rest of my CV, but most of the positions had seen the world through the lens of place and how you connect the pieces to try to deliver better services, particularly for those who need them most.

And then I came to DWP-world.

On the face of it, this is the government department which should be the most concerned with place.  Those in receipt of benefits, after all, tend to be disproportionately concentrated in particular geographies – albeit in London, we often live cheek by jowl.  However, in entering this (relatively) new world, I found something very different – big contracts, let on boundaries coterminous with little else, with an apparent focus on numbers and outcomes which seemed to have little connection to the wellbeing of areas. 

However, I also grew to appreciate the honesty of it.  In the regeneration world, how do we measure success – really? How do we actually know if we have made a difference?  Much is not quantified; aims are often contested; whilst improvements are hard to measure. Helping somebody into work and supporting them to stay there and thrive is real.

Eight years on I am hoping we have the beginnings of a new approach. Whitehall has come (albeit kicking and screaming in the case of some departments) to see the merits of combined authorities, local authority entities organised on broadly coherent economic areas. Local authorities and combined authorities in turn talk fluently about employment outcomes and ‘progress measures’.  Will this confluence of policy approaches lead to better places with more opportunities for individuals within that place?

I would like to think so, but am not yet completely sure. It seems to me that change – regeneration, renewal, economic or social development, plain old improvement –  takes a combination of factors and so often larger, more powerful, waves overcome us, be that the affect of global capitalism, out of control housing prices, the closure of a key employer or environmental degradation and we don’t realise what is occurring until the change is well underway. As I type I sit in Brixton, in a well known coffee chain (forgive me!), looking out at so many of those factors in evidence.

So what elements must be in play to make a sustained difference?  First is leadership. However, by that, I do not mean Churchillian fight them on the beaches type leadership. The leadership I mean is humble, it doesn’t believe it always knows best, it realises that a democratic mandate can only get you so far and that these are shared spaces, shared services and shared lives.  It is also a leadership of all the talents (to borrow from one Gordon Brown). It doesn’t believe that there is just one way of delivering services or that it should deliver everything itself. It listens and adapts and learns. And it is also long term. Change in terms of place tends to take years. It therefore shouldn’t aim for quick fixes or the snipping of a ribbon within a defined timeframe.

Those at the bottom must not be forgotten and, to ensure this, they must have a voice and they must have support. As places change, as we have seen again and again, the social mix can change. I don’t believe in trying to halt the tide, but neither am I in favour of people drowning, which means we must equip everybody to swim. In many cases this means helping individuals and communities become economically stronger, which in turn means increasing income and therefore jobs. And that is why decent employment support is so important. 

And though I started this piece by somewhat disparaging the miasma of numbers that the DWP can see the world through, I also love my job and the work of ERSA’s members. Organisations such as Renaisi work to join the dots and help individuals take advantage of improvements to place. Good employment support is based in communities and is connected to local economies. It equips people with the means to make great choices, which, in turn, benefits their families and others around them.  Like place based change, this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes courage and commitment and sheer hard work. But when it is successful in its own way it can change the world. 

Kirsty McHugh is Chief Executive of ERSA