Plans to devolve the Work Programme stimulate wide-ranging debate at Scottish convention

24th September 2015

Matthew Crighton, Inclusion Associate and Content Director, on Employabilty and Skills Scotland Convention 2015


The main question running throughout the Scottish convention was how the opportunity provided by the devolution of employment programmes might be used to build an integrated employability and skills system which can deliver better outcomes for people in Scotland. It took place in the middle of the wide-ranging consultation on Scotland’s Future Employment Programmes which the Scottish Government launched in anticipation of receiving these powers – about “how government can best help people find jobs – jobs that are good and fair”, the Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham told the convention.


Some have thought that perhaps it is too wide-ranging, considering the tight timescale for preparing ITTs in sufficient time to allow a start on new contracts in April 2017. Yet it isn’t possible for anyone to be very specific when the terms of this devolution are not yet known, let alone the scale of funding.


High-level discussion of this is continuing and I imagine some interesting conversations between John Swinney MSP and DWP ministers – the essence of Scottish devolution involves a block grant and complete discretion with the SG on how that is spent. This would imply that the scale, target groups and even purposes would be determined in Scotland not London. Given the Treasury and DWP concern that the Work Programme boost off-flows from benefits and actual levels of spending depending on contract performance I doubt there will be an easy meeting of minds.


The Scottish Government, of course, continues to press for devolution of Jobcentres as well and from the point of view of integrated service delivery, many at the convention felt it was hard to see the logic of keeping Jobcentres reserved while devolving the two main employment programmes. The link with benefits administration must have been at the root of Work Programme’s reluctance to let them go, but as Jim McCormick of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation pointed out the problem of divided accountability will instead run through the devolved employment programmes – to the DWP for benefits conditionality and to the Scottish Government for performance.


The low-hanging fruit from the Work Programme’s successor being Scottish will be an end to the line separating services for its participants and the rest. The Scottish Government and local authorities have been reluctant to pay for additional services for those customer groups, which might have boosted Work Programme performance to the financial benefit of the primes; and this has been reinforced by guidance on the use of ESF funds in Scotland.


This is the straightforward basis for confidence that overall improvements will arise, but thinking about exactly how is at a formative stage as reflected in the wide-ranging discussions about assessment and early intervention, holistic service design, management information and the right incentives for providers. There are uncertainties about the practical implications for the programmes run by Skills Development Scotland and the capacity to extend the integration to part or all of the activities of the FE colleges.


If the question of performance is at the core of the design of a Scottish replacement of the Work Programme, the initial question is ‘against what performance measures?’. A truly integrated system will hit skills, progression and health as well as employment targets. Some of the sessions at the convention grappled with the challenges of how to design outcomes and measures which would reflect all of these things and retain some of the clarity of the Work Programme commissioning.


Alongside these aspirations, hearing from Andy Hirst of CPC about the research study he did for the Scottish Employability Forum was sobering – the information needed to report on how much money is spent on which groups of customers across Scotland is not available from most of the current systems; and although there are some good area-based MI systems which do aggregate data about individuals and groups from multiple organisations, ‘no system told us how much money is spent on individuals and the outcomes’.


While pressing for further devolution from Westminster, at some point in designing its new system the Scottish Government will have to respond to calls for yet further devolution regarding employment programmes to localities – a case made by Iain Gray MSP speaking for Scottish Labour, and by local authorities. As with the question of Jobcentres, perhaps we’ll be hearing the term co-management more frequently in the future. It will also have to decide how to respond to the calls that Scotland’s voluntary sector has opportunity to play a more central role in programme delivery; and seek to do both of these things without creating greater complexity in a system where the aim has to be clarity and accessibility for both job-seekers and employers.


Scotland’s stable and mature institutional infrastructure and policy frameworks probably put it in a better position to tackle these matters than the rest of the UK. Alongside the will to work together shown at the convention, this is one of the reasons why Dave Simmonds felt able to suggest that Scotland’s performance will be 5 percentage points ahead of the UK average in 5 years time. Corresponding to about a 20% improvement in performance, he has set down a significant challenge. It will be interesting to see if the results of the consultation indicate something coherent and consensual on which the next steps can be constructed.