On Monday I was called as a witness to give oral evidence at an inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee into the future of Jobcentre Plus (JCP).
It was an interesting and lively session, chaired by John Glen MP, with cross party members who were clearly passionate about making job centres a better place for jobseekers.
I was there alongside Kathy Corocan from the Cardinal Hume Centre – part of the Caritas Social Action Network and one of our UK online centres – and Tom Hadley from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. We talked about our experiences of working with job centres on the ground – and the feedback I brought from the UK online centres network was invaluable.
Together we drew a picture for the Committee of what is an inconsistent service – a postcode lottery for job seeking support.
We had to submit our recommendations in advance of the committee and this is what we called for:
- An extension of the Digital Champion role in every Jobcentre, with an increased number of roles and improved training.
- Increased transparency of funding in local areas.
- A digital skills assessment for all benefit claimants and mandatory digital skills training for all those without digital skills.
- The UK online centre search and Learn My Way platform to be embedded on all DWP devices, both for advisors and claimants.
- Significant investment from DWP in digital skills, providing funding to support jobseekers to improve their digital skills and move into employment.
At Tinder Foundation, we know very well that in some places JCPs really get it, and there’s brilliant relationships with community partners like UK online centres to help support people to meet their job seeking commitments.
In other places those external relationships don’t exist, and there can be a real breakdown in the relationship between claimants and advisors.
For me, one of the key concerns is how commonly our network sees advisors who simply underestimate how difficult it is to use the internet if you don’t know how to.
I told the committee about an experience I had sat with a lady in a homeless hostel in London. Her JCP advisor had set her up with an email address and logged her onto Universal Jobmatch. She didn’t even know what the internet was, let alone what an email was, or what to do next. The assumption was she’d just ‘get it’. But in order to get there she had many other steps to go through – steps the JCP hadn’t counted and weren’t a part of her plan. That put her on the back foot from the get go, and she was struggling to keep ahead of sanctions.
It’s a story we’ve seen a lot of across the 5,000-strong UK online centres network – people are being sanctioned because they don’t have digital skills. We don’t know how many people, but it’s not a one-off comment from the network.
The good news is that 65,000 people were referred to the network from the JCP last year. Over that year, we actually supported 89,000 unemployed people looking for work to improve their digital skills. When Universal Jobmatch first came in, we identified the huge impact that had on our network with people flooding in to learn digital skills, and we’d worked with centres and claimants to build our online Universal Jobmatch guide within five weeks. Within two weeks, it had been used more than 5,000 times.
JCP has big changes planned. This should change the incentives local JCP staff work to. The expectations is the new Work Coach role will bring a culture change. Currently, the goals advisors set people are about getting onto Universal Jobmatch, making x number of searches or applying for x number of jobs in x time period. There’s sometimes a limited understanding of whether or not someone is job ready, what their digital skills are to start with, and a misunderstanding of whether or not someone having access to the internet actually means they can use it effectively.
Having Facebook on your phone doesn’t mean you can automatically job search, by yourself, confidently, every day of every week. We need to change how we diagnose those skills needs – and wider needs – and what checks and milestones we can put in place to track someone’s progress.
Here’s the thing. If someone has been unemployed and digitally excluded for a long time it’s unlikely they’re going to just magically get online and get a job. There’s something else going on, there are other factors there that need exploring. We need to look at the whole person, the routes of their issues and what their barriers are.
That’s not something I expect JCP advisors to do on their own. There are places out there that exist to fill in those gaps (some of them are UK online centres). It’s great many JCPs already refer successfully and we would like more to work with us on those referrals – to us and other support agencies – to help identify someone’s issues more effectively, and set their goals accordingly.
Fundamentally, DWP is planning a change in culture, a fresh approach. And that culture change at JCP needs to come from the top. I believe there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of digital exclusion. Job centres now have equipment, and they now have WiFi, but neither of those solves the very real digital skills gap that’s causing some very real pain on the ground.
As witnesses, we all agreed that new work coaches and new diagnostic tools aren’t enough by themselves – we need a universal commitment to addressing digital skills, and addressing each person as an individual.
We went on to talk about the physical job centre space, and how they could become more welcoming.
We were also challenged to go away and come up with six key questions to ask people to assess their skills levels and wider needs – something much deeper than Are you online? Tick or Do you have an email address? Tick.
Finally, I made the point that all the work UK online centres currently do is 80% funded by government – and mostly by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, for whom we move people across the digital divide for around £15 a head. While we report to the Department for Work and Pensions through this programme each quarter, we don’t have an official nor funded relationship with them. We do value the informal relationships we have with committed and intelligent people who see the changes needed much more clearly than I do.
There is huge potential for us to take the models of good practice and seed them across the rest of the country. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Committee’s recommendations are developed, and how we can continue to help that process along. Hopefully, we’ll see the results on the frontline very soon.
If you’d like to see me in action at the Committee, you can do so here on Parliament TV.