Today is Day 1 of the Welfare to Work Programme. This is the Government's strategy to halve long-term unemployment and as far as I can judge from the coverage, as launches go, it's on track.
The programme itself has had a rocky start because the Government's drive to achieve economies of scale has seen a great many third sector, or Big Society organisations, successfully working in the field miss out on contracts. Mixed messages are a real problem for this Government because while it makes perfect sense to try and consolidate a return-to-work strategy, not only to save money but also to create more measurable outcomes, Big Society promotes the idea that local, community-based approaches to social problems are the way forward. My suggestion here would be to allow for the idea that Big Society can also be about big charities and social enterprises working at local level, because it is here that Government and indeed the opposition (see Labour's Lord Maurice Glasman's recent random comments about Locality) have got in a knot.
If we start from the premise of social impact being the Holy Grail and work back from there, we see where the arguments about size and vehicles really sit in terms of priority. Don't get me wrong, I am a passionate campaigner for local community groups and still hope that a role for those that have survived the Age of Austerity can be found, but it's the people we help that matter and if Welfare to Work does what it says on the tin, then I will be the first to cheer. People, particularly young people, need jobs desperately.
As for the way in which the programme works, there are still real concerns that contracts represent a potentially hazardous commitment on the part of the provider, some of whom have had to bet the farm on success. These are the largest, tightest contracts in the return-to-work field ever issued, where the returns to the deliverer are only achievable if they get people jobs and keep them there – that was why only the big boys got a look in. In many ways these contracts represent joint ventures with Government and how they perform will matter to all of us.
From my point of view I can see some real benefits and with SEL members like CDG (Careers Development Group) winning the east London contract, our sector has an unprecedented chance to demonstrate significant social value through Welfare to Work. But this is quite a challenge as the audaciousness of the plan means that jobs will not just have to be found but created and the issues associated with the long-term unemployed such as lack of skills, chemical dependancy and disability will all have to be addressed. Social enterprises like CDG have a great track record in caring about and getting involved in work creation, particularly for those that are far from the labour market, so that should give them a head start.
My day started with watching Roy O'Shaughnessy ceo at CDG talking about his hopes for the programme on BBC breakfast news. I thought he did a great job outlining what makes the commitment of a social enterprise different to that of a private sector deliverer in that he mentioned that CDG was concerned about the 50% that would not be touched by the programme. He also explained why he felt this was the most significant step forward in the delivery of a return-to-work strategy that we had seen for a very long time.
Will it work? I don't know, but with deliverers like CDG that are in it for the social impact, we have a chance to really see what can be done for those out of work and what really makes the difference. Now all we have to do is create the businesses and jobs for the clients of the work programme to go into. Again here is where social enterprise has outperformed its equivalents in the private sector, but we need to create the right environment, support fledgling businesses and, I would argue, address the issue of self-employment. It's all to play for and the stakes could not be higher.