Thursday 4 October 2012

Charities and the Work Programme

Today the BBC are reporting that many charities are in financial trouble or going under as a result of involvement in the UK Government’s Work Programme and quote Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations saying of the Work Programme  "They [charities] think it's a walking disaster.  I've heard no positive feedback from voluntary organisations. Some have gone bust, some have withdrawn from the programme. They have a real problem with the way the contracts are structured."

The Work Programme is designed to get long term unemployed people back into work.  Once someone has been registered unemployed for 12 months (9 months for those under 25) Job Centre Plus hands them over to one of 18 prime contractors around the country who are then paid by results for getting them into sustained employment.  This means that the prime contractors are paid only a small up-front fee per job seeker and paid the full fee once the job seeker has found a job and stayed in it for 26 weeks.  Payment by results should ensure that the support provided to job seekers is effective in ensuring they find a job and keep it.  Organisations do not get paid if their services are ineffective.  The prime contractors can use charities and other organisations to provide specialist services such as training or help for those who are homeless, or have physical or mental disabilities.  The contracts between the prime contractors and other support organisations are separately negotiated and are not necessarily linked to the payment by results scheme.

Despite the Work Programme being trumpeted by the Department of Work and Pensions as “a massive boost for the Big Society” only one of the 18 prime contractors is a charity.  This is CDG (Careers Development Group) who are currently merging with a bigger charity The Shaw Trust, who are already involved in the Work Programme as a sub-contractor.   To be fair, many voluntary organisations are involved in supporting the prime contractors.  Commercial prime contractors include scandal-hit A4E and G4S. (Memo to self: never start a 3-letter company with a 4 in the middle.)

I volunteer at CDG’s Wimbledon centre for 3 hours every Monday morning, providing additional support to job seekers by coaching, writing and improving their CVs and cover letters, helping with basic IT skills and online job search and generally being someone to talk things through with.  We volunteers are a support to the full-time employment advisors who provide the prime, professional support.  I find it a great way to start the week.  It’s energising to meet and engage with a broad range of people and motivating to feel I can make even a small difference.  CDG are a great organisation to work with, providing regular feedback and recognition to the volunteers, arranging for networking meetings and always ready to listen to ideas for improvement. 

Recently some volunteers met with CDG’s strategy and business development manager for a briefing on the Work Programme, so I had the opportunity to hear about the design of the Work Programme and how it's working in practice and to ask questions.  One fairly obvious question I asked was how a charity such as CDG was able to manage the cash flow issue inherent in a payment by results scheme that means no payment can be received for at least six months and usually significantly longer.  CDG had, not surprisingly, addressed this issue, done their sums and ensured that they had sufficient funds available to deal with the cash flow challenge. 

Today’s headlines appear to be mainly about charities taking on payment by results contracts without planning effectively how to deal with the cash flow issue.  “They are not businesses” I hear, but you don’t need a degree in economics or a big business brain to understand that if you don’t have any money coming in on the contract for at least 6 months you’d better have a way of dealing with that.  Any charity that handles its finances that badly is simply very badly managed.  No one forced them to take contracts of this nature.  There is no obligation for sub-contracting charities to sign payment by results contracts.  I daresay that the commercially based prime contractors pushed for payments by results contracts to match their own income streams, but charities did not have to comply. 

Hidden beneath the headlines are reports of cases where charities have signed up as work programme sub contractors but been fed very little work.  I guess this to mean that the commercial prime contractors are finding other ways of getting people back into work.  It is possible that services that in the past were provided by charities are now being delivered by “for profit” companies.  That would be a shame but, so long as the main objective of helping the long-term unemployed back into work is being achieved, I think it’s not the biggest issue.

So, are the BBC and the press in general correct that the Work Programme is “a walking disaster”?  Ever since it was launched the programme has been attacked first as driving “forced labour” (unpaid work experience schemes) and now as closing down worthy charities.  Our media are quick to look for bad news to keep the 24 hour news bandwagon fuelled.  (Remember all the negative stories before the Olympics of impending public transport meltdown, missiles on rooftops, security threats and the G4S meltdown?)

The fact is that it’s too early to judge whether the Work Programme is working.  The programme was launched in June 2011.  No statistics or results have yet been published.  Let’s judge when we have facts.  In the meantime I can assure you that CDG are a professional and caring organisation staffed with excellent individuals who are really committed to making a difference and that most of the clients I meet are genuinely grateful for the support they are receiving to get back into work.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

What I learned as a Gamesmaker

I was a volunteer, a Gamesmaker, at the London Olympics.  I was a team member in the Entertainment Team  who organised for a variety of artists - singers, rappers, bands, poets, choirs, jugglers, guitarists, opera singers and more - to perform around the Olympic Park at Stratford. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.  I learned, more correctly re-learned, some things about organisations and behaviour at work that I'd like to share.

1. Von Moltke was right.

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously said that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy".  This is spectacularly true when the plan has been made by people (however intelligent and energetic) who do not have a great deal of practical experience.  We were carefully briefed on day one and assigned to our duties, but stuff happened  - acts didn't turn up, security passes were not ready, equipment was not where it was needed - and the beautiful plans were irrelevant within minutes.  Von Moltke was right, but people who have been around the block a few times know how to plan for contingencies and how detailed a plan it's worth making.  However - see point two.

2. Intelligent, motivated people can self-organise even in a new context.

By definition the volunteers were all very motivated to be there.  A few found some of the initial chaos upsetting but many, myself included, were mildly amused and thrived on it.  We had a wide range of backgrounds and skills which was exciting and quite as asset.  Very few of the volunteers had ever worked at an event like the Olympics, and neither had quite a few of the paid LOCOG staff, but that was not a major issue.  People quickly self-selected for the roles they enjoyed and soon we were quite a high performing team, able to adapt to anything that was thrown at us.  That was a lot of fun.

3. Put enough people together in an organisation and you will get bureaucratic behaviour.

There were moments when bureaucracy raised its ugly (or is it comical?) head.  Sometimes small incidents ("there's someone locked in the disabled toilet") led not to the obvious action (try to let them out) but to walkie-talkie escalations up reporting lines and across to other teams. There were supervisors walking around with three different radios and answering mobile phones too.  Most found this annoying but some clearly got a buzz from being so "busy".  One or two supervisors have a lot to learn about dealing with people, but thankfully the vast majority were a joy to work with.  I realise now how lucky I was to work so long for Shell, where management are very competent and the culture is very respectful of people.

4. Recognition is powerful and always under done.

In my two weeks as a Gamesmaker I received more genuine recognition and thanks, both personally and in general to all Gamesmakers, than I did in my 30+ year professional career.  I really appreciated that and was lifted by it every day.  They even brought Eddie Izzard over to say thank you.
I have found recognition is also readily given in my other volunteering activities.  I do not mean criticise my previous professional employers over others, just to point out that recognition at work is hugely under done and that must have a big negative impact on productivity.

5. There is a huge pool of energetic, talented and motivated young people in the UK.

Finally, for any of you who believe the nonsense in the press about "young people today", I was absolutely bowled over by the talented, energetic, entrepreneurial young people who were entertaining on the  Olympic Park or enabling others to do so.  The UK has a bright future if we can harness all that energy and talent.

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Happy Birthday World Service

The BBC World Service is 80 years old today.  I have very fond memories of listening to the World Service on a crackly short-wave radio in the 1980s and 1990s in Dubai and Oman.  When the Lilliulero theme tune played a little piece of home entered the room.  The news was the main attraction, of course; not only news from home, but more importantly the world news.

In many parts of the world, sadly including the U.A.E. and Oman, the local press and media are heavily government controlled and can't be relied on to tell the truth.  During the first Gulf War my family and I were living in Oman.  Ironically, reporting of what was happening was in inverse proportion to proximity to the action.  In Europe and the USA you may have had graphic images of death and destruction nightly on television, but we had only some very restrained and highly questionable newspaper reports.  For many people BBC World Service radio was the one reliable source of uncensored news.  That is not to say that the World Service is immune from manipulation of the facts by interested parties, just that I believe they are not deliberately biased and do not knowingly report propaganda and untruths.

But in this world of 24 hour rolling news and the Internet is the World Service not now a old fashioned relic?  To judge from their global audience of 225 million the answer is a resounding no.  It's interesting, but not surprising, that BBC World Service audience numbers for Iran have recently increased by 80%.

So happy Birthday World Service, and many happy returns.