In the aftermath of the (excellent) ERSA conference, I couldn’t help but reflect that I felt a touch frustrated. Why, you might ask? Well, you might describe it as a touch of the grumpy old man syndrome, but I think it’s something more than that.
I’ve been working in the sector since 2002, which starts to scare me when I think about it. So, I’ve been around for a while. To some extent, you should probably expect conferences to feel like Groundhog Day at this stage in your career. But, there’s an extent to which this feeling is starting to concern me. I think there’s something bigger at stake at the moment, and it’s the corporate memory of the employment related services sector. In a period of significant transition, in which we are losing individuals and organisations with deep experience and expertise, the ability of the sector as a whole to remember what it knows is of paramount importance. At the moment, I worry that we are not doing a very good job.
I first recognised this feeling of unease a few years ago, at a roundtable on the Work Programme. A very bright young policy maker from Number 10 was holding forth on some of the teething issues experienced with the mobilisation and early delivery. “You see, you’ve got to remember,” she said very clearly, “this is the first time we’ve ever delivered a programme like this before.” At the time I remember counting decades of senior experience around the table, who had seen everything from Action Team for Jobs and the various New Deals (including Flexible) through to Employment Zones and Pathways to Work.
This feeling was much more pointed at the recent ERSA conference, in which I listened to a number of presentations and attended a number of breakout sessions in which we sat and heard how we were learning all over again how to do things that we learned how to do years ago.
DWP are firmly in ‘test and learn’ mode. The frustrating truth is that much of it has already been done, pre-2010 by bodies and initiatives including: the Social Exclusion Unit, the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, the Policy Action Team for Jobs, the New Deal Task Force and so on. Providers seem to be increasingly good at reinventing the wheel. How do we engage voluntary customers? We worked this out in the 2000s. Finding the bureaucracy of ESF funding a steep learning curve? Haven’t we been doing this since the 1990s? Recognising the importance of properly engaging employers with an offer that meets their needs? I think I may have read that book before.
Some of this is, of course, about politics. Firstly, the post-2010 government clearly needed to differentiate itself from the previous administration - diminishing previous programmes and dismissing previous lessons learned. Secondly, at the moment, the present administration has no bandwidth left to have any ambition beyond managing Brexit without breaking up the country or destroying the economy.
Some of it though does sit with us, the provider community. We’ve been terribly bad at documenting best practice and building a clear body of evidence that enables us to progressively improve our services from iteration to iteration. I’ve sat in too many rooms in which someone has said: "oh, yeah, we used to do it like that and it worked really well…” Having spent years successfully building the argument on a wide range of issues - such as the power of DEL-AME/invest to save, the effectiveness of payment by results, the value of a mixed market of providers (i.e. from the public, private and voluntary sector) - we run the risk of going back to square one on every single one, because we are slowly but surely losing our memory of those debates.
Between us, we know what works. But if we don’t develop our corporate memory - both as organisations and as a sector - we’ll do a disservice to ourselves, to the pioneers that came before us and, most of all, to the communities we exist to serve. In so many areas of life, science and business, each generation improves by building on the learning of the generation that’s gone before. We need to get better at this, quickly!