Making work the focus: the initial
Personal Adviser interview
21. The work-focused interview lies at the heart
of the ONE process. In the course of an interview, scheduled to
last around 45 minutes for new claimants, Personal Advisers are
- consider job possibilities and conduct a jobsearch
- set up a Jobseeker's Agreement (for JSA claimants);
- identify employment barriers;
- to start to identify potential ways of overcoming
barriers (particularly if the client has an interest in finding
employment at some point in the future);
- and to encourage non-JSA clients to take up the
offer of ongoing support to find work on a voluntary basis and
agree an action plan.
- In addition, they are expected to check and submit
benefit claim forms.
22. In reality, the research suggests that it was
benefit-related matters which dominated the initial Personal Adviser
meetings for all client groups, with the work-focus taking second
place: "priority, in the sense of coming first, was always
given to ensuring that claim activities were covered. After that,
staff had to judge what work-related element they would address
in the time left...benefits activities tended to overrun."
For example, in the case of JSA claimants, the work-related part
of the interview tended to be based almost entirely on the adviser
looking at a computer screen, briefly checking types of work the
person wanted to do, travel to work distance and pay level preferred,
followed by a job search using the Labour Market System.
Observers noted that "typically, there was little discussion:
clients were not encouraged to explore their work experience,
aspirations or ideas - or lack of these."
The researchers noted that an essential part of the initial meeting
is the signing of a Job Seekers Agreement, but found this could
only be tackled once the key benefit claim issues had been dealt
with. As a result, the Agreement "tended to be drawn up quite
quickly and according to a formula."
23. The same research identified "a fairly low
key approach to work" in initial Personal Adviser interviews
with non-JSA claimants.
There is some evidence that non-JSA clients tended to be referred
by Start-Up advisers to see a Personal Adviser with a benefits
background. In this situation, particularly with the more complex
claims, the focus would be primarily on benefits, although the
work orientation would be acknowledged.
This low-key approach to work advice is reflected in the small
proportion of lone parents, and sick or disabled people who said
they had received advice about jobs and training. 27 per cent
of lone parents and 21 per cent of sick or disabled people told
researchers they had discussed methods to finding work or training,
while 12 per cent of both lone parents and sick or disabled people
reported they had received advice about actual jobs. Although
this compares favourably with people in the control areas, the
researchers comment "we might have expected a higher proportion
to have discussed such issues, particularly as the work-focused
interview is a central feature of the service."
24. The dominance of initial Personal Adviser meetings
by discussions concerning benefits, rather than work, goes some
way to explaining why the employment outcomes in the ONE pilots
to date are so disappointing. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising
that new benefit claimants' first priority is to get their benefits
sorted out. In the words of Mr Christopher Melvin from Reed in
Partnership: "when people walked through the door of the
ONE office, what they wanted was to know that next week someone
would pay their rent and that they would get some money to buy
food and the basics of life. Once that was out of the way, then
they were very happy to engage in a discussion about how they
got back into the labour market."
We are therefore pleased to see that, in order to 're-focus' the
initial Personal Adviser interview on work, in Jobcentre Plus
Pathfinder offices an interviewee will first be seen by a benefit
financial assessor, who will check their claim form and make sure
all the relevant information is included. The work-focused interview
with a Personal Adviser will follow, to be rounded off with a
final session with the benefit expert.
This will allow the Personal Adviser to concentrate more exclusively
on work-related issues. Personal Advisers will also be allocated
more time to deal with non-JSA clients: 60 minutes, as opposed
to 45 minutes.
25. These measures are sensible and are to be welcomed.
However, whilst they may allow Personal Advisers more time to
discuss work-related matters, they do not deal with a more fundamental
problem; staff found it difficult to approach the subject of work
with non-JSA clients for whom work was not a priority. Researchers
found that some Personal Advisers were reluctant to broach the
subject of work with non-JSA clients, especially those on Incapacity
Benefit, unless the client brought it up themselves or had been
in employment recently. This was because they felt they lacked
the skills and expertise to have a work-related discussion with
these clients, and felt the subject was a sensitive one.
As a result, non-JSA clients who might have benefited from such
a discussion lost out. As an obvious example, researchers identified
certain people claiming sickness benefits who perceived themselves
as job-ready, and who felt that work was an immediate priority.
Most were unsure about what work they were able to do, particularly
where their illness or disability prevented a return to their
previous employment. Because these claimants saw ONE as being
primarily about benefits, few of them had raised their aspirations
to return to work with their Personal Adviser.
Tellingly, their Personal Advisers had clearly failed to instigate
pro-actively with them a discussion about work. For those
non-JSA clients, who were not immediately job-ready but who might
be able to work in the future, Personal Advisers' reluctance to
raise the subject of work meant that they did not get the opportunity
to explore their options, build their confidence, and generally
start on a journey towards work.
26. How are Personal Advisers supposed to talk about
work to someone applying for Carer's Allowance or Incapacity Benefit?
Or mothers or fathers whose partner has recently left the family?
These were questions raised by an American 'welfare to work' expert,
Ms Julie Kerksick, who spent six months working with civil servants
implementing the ONE pilots.
Her answer was that Advisers needed not only initial training,
but ongoing follow-up both on an individual basis and through
mutual learning to develop the complex skills needed to take on
board the wider goals of ONE and to translate those into practical
strategies for dialogue with clients on the ground. We were advised
by the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, Mr Leigh Lewis, that
more information had been provided for Advisers on handling sensitive
issues and barriers, and that every Adviser in Jobcentre Plus
had been through a three day programme called New Beginnings,
aimed at giving "a better understanding of what we were trying
to do." We welcome
these measures. However, we consider that the provision of information
and an initial three day training course are not enough. We
recommend that Advisers participate in on-going training, including
individual feedback, in order that they can develop, consolidate,
and pass on the complex skills they need to engage in a work-focused
dialogue with the wide range of Jobcentre Plus customers.
27. The research evidence also found that Personal
Advisers were not good at identifying barriers to work. For example,
in the case of JSA claimants, the delivery evaluation found that
the issue of whether they were actually ready for work was not
really tackled, unless there were obvious health problems. After
an interview, Personal Advisers might express their doubts to
the researchers, but these were rarely voiced to the client. "In
many cases," the researchers said, "clients' work preferences
appeared unrealistic but the Personal Adviser did not challenge
these at the first meeting."
Dr John Kelleher, responsible for the delivery evaluation, commented:
"we have seen people identified by PAs as effectively workshy,
when to our observer they were clearly depressed."
The conclusion reached was that Personal Advisers did not necessarily
have all the skills required to uncover and address underlying
problems such as mental illness, substance abuse, literacy/numeracy
problems, social skills, confidence or motivational problems.
Instead, Personal Advisers were found to be assessing clients'
ability to work informally, based only on their own impressions
of the client's willingness and abilities, on their previous employment
history, qualifications and 'body language' which, it was said
"lets you know whether they want to work."
This 'impressionistic' approach is manifestly unsatisfactory.
We recommend that more training - not simply information -
is given to Advisers to help them to identify barriers to work.
28. In addition to greater training, we have concluded
that there is a need for a more systematic approach among Advisers
in general to identifying barriers to work and distance from the
labour market and awareness of services available from other agencies,
schemes and voluntary organisations including those at a local
level who can assist in taking forward that person's case.
This conclusion is based on the visit the Committee paid to The
Netherlands, where, in a parallel development to Jobcentre Plus,
'Centres for Work and Income' (CWIs) have been established. One
of the tasks of CWI staff is to assess claimants' work readiness
- described as their 'distance from the labour market'. Using
a systematic questionnaire, advisers class claimants in one of
four groups ranging from Phase 1 - people who were immediately
job-ready, to Phase 4 - people who were furthest from the labour
market, either because of lack of education and skills, personal
problems such as addiction or poor health, or caring responsibilities.
Phase 1 and Phase 2 clients - seen as likely to get work within
a year, if supported through an action plan - were taken on by
CWI advisers, who would offer active job assistance and advice
through weekly or monthly contact. Phase 3 people - defined as
those where it would take longer than a year to find them work,
and Phase 4 people, were referred on to specialist programmes,
coordinated by the local authority of the area.
29. When asked whether Advisers had been equipped
with appropriate diagnostic tools to assess degrees of distance
from the labour market, Mr Lewis assured us that this was the
case in Jobcentre Plus: "drawing on experience, not just
from ONE pilots but from the New Deals where we have introduced
something called the 'client progress kit', we are trying to equip
our advisers with the ability to be able to ascertain people's
needs ...so they can make better informed choices and give better
advice to people as to how they maintain their missions forward."
Worryingly, however, Employment Service research found that the
client progress kit was almost universally disliked by staff,
and that the level of dislike was often quite intense.
They saw it as of little or no benefit, excessively bureaucratic
and time consuming. Given the strong antipathy to the client progress
kit among New Deal staff, we suspect this is unlikely to become
the successful way forward for Jobcentre Plus advisers.
30. As a Committee, we were impressed by the evidence
of Mr Kelleher, the chief author of the delivery evaluation. He
stressed the value of protocols - "how do you handle particular
situations, what is the routine you run through and what do you
do, contingent upon that?" - as a useful tool for advisers.
We welcome the commitment within Jobcentre Plus to improve
the ability of Advisers to identify barriers to work. We believe
diagnostic tests, such as those used in the Netherlands, are worthy
of consideration. We recommend that protocols be developed to
assist Personal Advisers to explore in a more systematic and consistent
manner a person's work readiness and the barriers they face.
31. We have concentrated in this section on the steps
which need to be taken to improve a Personal Adviser's knowledge
and skills in dealing particularly with those with barriers to
work. Another factor, however, is the willingness of Personal
Advisers to engage with the less job-ready, within a culture where
the overwhelming priority is job placement targets. The role of
targets in influencing behaviour is discussed below.