Learning and Work research calls for a new ‘what works’ offer in employment services

30 September 2016

Government should develop an employment datalab and a new ‘what works’ offer to encourage innovation and learning in employment services, according to recommendations in new research from Learning and Work Institute.  

The wide-ranging research, published today by the Department for Work and Pensions and conducted by Learning and Work Institute and Nesta, the innovation foundation, reviewed:

  • The government’s approach to innovation, learning and flexibility within Jobcentre Plus since 2011 – known as ‘Freedoms and Flexibilities;
  • The Labour Market ‘What Works’ offer developed and delivered by the Department for its policy and operational teams; and
  • The approach taken by employment services providers in the wider private, voluntary and community sectors.

The report found extensive good practices in how DWP and Jobcentre Plus services have evolved over the last five years – with a very strong internal ‘what works’ offer that clearly links evidence with policy and delivery; local services working in flexible ways to improve services; and strong staff engagement. 

However, the report also finds that local innovations often focused on improving or modifying existing processes rather than more transformational or ambitious change – so ‘doing things differently’ rather than ‘doing different things’.  More far-reaching innovation was often inhibited by a focus on short-term performance, local capacity and the level of prescription in how services are delivered.  Evaluation of local innovations was also weak, with limited communication back from the frontline to the central department on how flexibilities were being used.  More radical innovations were more likely to be generated through the new ‘trials unit’, usually with a clear evidence base and robust evaluation.  However the scope for local involvement in generating and developing ideas was often limited.

The research found that the wider employment services sector was often less innovative at the frontline than Jobcentre Plus, with a greater focus on procedural efficiency.  Providers felt that this was driven in particular by the requirements of government contracts, and a lack of appetite for providers to take risks, test new approaches and innovate once programmes were up and running (particularly within the Work Programme).  It was also felt that increasing competition had reduced the scope to collaborate and share learning.

The report makes fifteen recommendations, under three headings:

  • Improving local flexibility and innovation within Jobcentre Plus – through addressing local barriers, giving permission to Districts and offices to innovate, improving capability, and encouraging collaboration between Districts
  • Improving the DWP ‘offer’ to local areas – establishing a ‘datalab’ to make it easier to measure impact; refreshing resources for local areas; and engaging more proactively with local areas
  • Shaping the wider market – opening out internal ‘what works’ resources to the wider market; considering the case for a new ‘innovation fund’ to stimulate innovation; and engaging providers more in generating evidence and sharing learning

Tony Wilson, Director of Policy and Research and one of the report authors, said:

“This research highlights the good progress that the Department and Jobcentre Plus have made since 2011 – with more flexibility at the frontline, greater staff engagement, a new ‘trials unit’ and a really strong, central ‘what works’ resource.  But perhaps inevitably, the constant focus on performance and targets – in Jobcentre Plus but also in the Work Programme – has made it harder for the frontline to take risks and try new things; while the focus on evaluation, measuring impact and sharing learning has often been missed. 

“Looking ahead, we would like to see a new approach to innovation, learning and sharing – based on a common ‘what works’ offer and resources, collaboration within and between sectors, and more support for testing and learning both at the frontline and by partners.”