The Work Programme: keep calm and carry on

Document type
Nicholson, Chris
Date of publication
1 February 2012
Social welfare
Material type

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The Work Programme is a bold and innovative policy designed to help unemployed people back to work. Contractors will be paid according to their success in getting the unemployed into work and then sustaining them in employment. The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published a report looking at the design and implementation of the Work Programme to date. The report highlighted concerns about the level of performance in getting the unemployed back to work which had been assumed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This has led some to call for a rethink of the programme.

This research note examines certain aspects of the design of the Work Programme where a different approach would have been beneficial. It is concluded that:

  • as a result of the relatively poor information available to bidders on claimants and performance that a rather different approach should have been used by adopting a ‘discovery phase’ in the early partof the contract.
  • if a more rigorous analytical approach to risk transfer had been used in designing the programme then this may have led to a better value for money approach being adopted
  • for future programmes an approach to bid evaluation which places somewhat less of a weighting on competition on price and rather more on quality should be examined.

Notwithstanding these comments,there are many very good, innovative aspects in the design of the Work Programme which other programmes would do well to mirror – in particular the mechanism which is in place to deal with contractor failure. Whilst the underlying economic context is very challenging for the success of Work Programme contractors in getting the unemployed back to work, it is argued that currently there is no need to alter the programme. To do so at this time would be a major error and would undermine both future DWP and wider government contracting for services and repeat the mistakes of the past by compensating contractors for their poor decisions when bidding for contracts.

Furthermore, whilst it is understandable that the third sector would be disappointed with the early outcome of the Work Programme, to have adopted a different approach would have fundamentally undermined some of the key aspects of the programme. Whilst there are some lessons to be learnt for future programmes the key message in relation to the Work Programme is - keep calm and carry on.

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