Is there a future for employment and skills in local government?

Is there a future for employment and skills in local government?

We think councils need to invest in a local employment and skills strategy now more than ever, Caroline Masundire reflects on our work with councils and what we have learnt.


Many employment and skills teams in local government are facing an uncertain future.  In part this is due to uncertainty on what will replace ESF, how skills devolution will play out in local areas and the extent to which council-led interventions will be needed.  Couple this uncertainty with councils needing to focus their resources on statutory services, questions are being raised about what their employment and skills role should be.

Employment and skills is often only viewed as an outcome from planning gain.  Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levies are used as match for ESF and other funding to deliver employment and skills programmes linked to physical development. However, we think that some councils are missing out on opportunities by viewing employment and skills through this myopic lens. It is not as simple as putting Person A into Job X.

Our view is that councils should be thinking about how employment and skills can play a greater part in the transformation of services, leading to better and more sustainable outcomes for people and communities.

The trouble is that looking at employment and skills through a bigger, transformation lens requires leadership and cross service commitment to grasp the opportunity.  It also requires getting everyone onto a similar level of understanding of how the system works now and then how it all needs to work together in the future.  It is complicated stuff and not for the faint-hearted.

We have been working with several authorities to help them determine what their employment and skills role should be and then putting in place the systems and structures to help them get there.

Here are some of the lessons we have learnt.

Keeping the faith

Our work always comes at a time when councils are also undergoing organisational and structural change including making redundancies and cuts in services.  Mapping services to understand duplication and gaps in provision as well as how much the council is investing in activities is very hard in these conditions and takes much longer than  expected. Patience is certainly a virtue.

Some clients are also facing uncertainty in their jobs and may not be there in the future to take this work forward. So, in addition to providing the evidence, business case and framework for action, we also help clients navigate this environment by keeping them focused on the outcomes as well as provide a sympathetic ear.   

Our job is as much about helping clients keep the faith as it is about producing the outputs.

Don’t chase the funding

Let’s face it the commissioning and funding of employment and skills (in England and particularly in London) is bonkers.  We have created what we call ‘the maps of contracting mess’ to illustrate the complexity and dysfunction of a skills and employment system comprising different funders and stakeholder interests.

A system which encourages providers to compete for the same clients, displaces existing and others provision and by funding one outcome, discourages the collaboration and coordination it was trying to achieve in the first place.

Many clients are wrestling with this duplication and spend most of their limited time and resources trying to understand what’s going on and coordinate provision.

This leaves little or no time for teams to think, plan and work strategically. Inevitably conversations always end up focusing on trying to fit programmes into funding rather than finding funding to fit the need.

Enabling clients to be brave and to be clear about what they want to achieve first and then look at how to fund it is a big challenge, but important to get right. We tell clients to think outcomes first and funding second.

A compelling and evidenced strategy for action, with clear outcomes will more likely get funding, and probably from the least expected sources.

Embedding a ‘Think Work’ mindset

Councils are focusing on strategies to manage and reduce demand on their services, but often give little thought about how employment and skills can make a difference.  Health and social care is a prime example of how employment and skills can help by coordinating a local workforce development offer to address skills and staff shortages and reduce costs of care.

But councils also need to think about how they work with residents to help them become more resilient. For services where employment is likely to be outcome, such as those working with families, children and young people they should be helping people prepare for the world of work much earlier on.

We think this should focus on building residents’ financial, mental and digital resilience, helping to build greater self-reliance as well as the basic skills needed to cope in an uncertain and changing labour market.

Developing a business case to think strategically about the contribution of employment and skills to achieving better outcomes is key to embedding a ‘Think Work’ mindset and fundamental to transforming services.

Focusing on what you can control and influence

Finally, it is important to help clients whittle down what is often a long wish-list into three or four actions where they have the most control and influence – and therefore can make the greatest difference.  Some councils are bolder than others and want greater change, others have more modest ambitions. Getting under the skin of the politics, landscape and ambition of the council is an important first step.

There are things beyond a council’s, a devolved partnership or even a city mayor’s capacity to change, so these need to be parked and clients helped to move on to focus on what is possible.

Concentrating on the assets and characteristics of their area and creating a compelling vision that members, staff, stakeholders and the community can get behind, is key to securing buy-in. It also helps build a clear narrative for action.

The ambitions for employment and skills from area to area rarely differ, but the roadmap for getting there is always unique to the place. 

So our final lesson is that there is not a pre-designed template for a plan, neither will cutting and pasting an approach from somewhere else work. It has to be built through collaboration and from a common starting point.


If you would like more information on our work in this area get in touch by email to [email protected] or call 020 7253 6289.


Caroline is Associate Director based in our London office you can view her profile here.


It is still all about People, Poverty and Places

It is still all about People, Poverty and Places

Things change but nothing really changes.  Caroline Masundire reflects on ten years at Rocket Science and the uncertain future for employment and skills.

I celebrate ten years at Rocket Science next month and never has a decade gone so quickly or been as eventful.

One of my interviews took place in Birmingham, during the 2007 Welfare to Work Convention run by CESI (now the Learning and Work Institute). An annual all-singing, all-dancing affair, where the great and good assemble to debate all things employment, skills and welfare.

Those were the days. A big exhibition, too much choice and little time to attend sessions, announcements such as City Strategies trialing local control over employment programmes (sound familiar?) and a bit of a knees up.

It was a time where there was a lot of cash around, new policies and programmes were being created, but we were also on the precipice of the Great Recession of the noughties. Work was the answer to everything – better mental health and wellbeing, a route out of poverty and key to local growth and prosperity. Regions played a key role in economic regeneration, new technologies, like Linkedin, were starting to connect people and networks and the idea of leaving the European Union was unthinkable.

But 2007 also presaged a time of great shakeup in the employment and skills sector. Outsourcing firms and new market entrants from the US and Australia were eyeing up the DWP contracting prize. The Freud and Leitch reports called for radical change and benefit reform was a growing twinkle in Iain Duncan-Smith’s eye.

So how much has changed in the past ten years?

I attended this year’s convention at the Oval earlier this month, the first I had been to for several years. The exhibition was much smaller and I could count the “outsourcers and new market entrants” on less than one hand – gone were the flashy stands, googly-eyed freebies and neckerchiefs. This, alongside the general mood of the convention, was a clear indication that the sector continues to experience shakeup:

  • Less money is being invested in national programmes and what is left locally will disappear in 2019. There is little assurance of what will replace ESF post Brexit.
  • This, alongside apprenticeship and skills funding reform, has forced provider consolidation and reform, with many redundancies in the sector.
  • Getting someone a job is just not good enough anymore. The cost of housing, Universal Credit and insecure work means that we have to prepare people better to manage this insecurity and build their financial resilience. Work is no longer a route out of poverty.
  • Despite investment into skills and education we are not making the real progress we need to compete in the global economy.

Many people I spoke to feared a policy vacuum for employment and skills over the next couple of years as the Government focuses its efforts on Brexit negotiations. Devolution in many places is taking its time and we might not see real change for several years. Work Local, the Local Government Agency vision for employment and skills devolution is a common-sense approach. But this sets the scene for 2021.

What does this mean for the sector?

Addressing in-work poverty is the next big thing and we have to ensure that investment in getting people back to work, focuses on poverty reduction. Our relationship with clients and employers will need to change as will our services and offer.

Despite policies and funding, it will be up to local organisations to take control over how to make the most of what is happening in their area. They will need to really understand what will make their place resilient in a post-Brexit world. And start to put in place plans and structures.

Most reassuring from the Convention was the passion and commitment of organisations working on the front-line. Despite such challenges and change, this passion has not waned and many of the organisations that were helping people back to work in 2007, are still here – ten years on. This collective experience and passion is the sector’s greatest asset.

Governments, Ministers, policies and funding come and go. So the greatest lesson I have learnt from the passing of ten years, is that employment and skills has, and always will be about People, Poverty and Places.

Caroline is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out her profile here.

Why London’s employment initiatives need to focus on poverty reduction

Why London’s employment initiatives need to focus on poverty reduction

Does public investment into employment and skills programmes create and worsen in-work poverty?  Caroline Masundire reflects on the challenge in London and why we need to focus on poverty reduction rather than just any old job.

The challenge facing people who are unemployed or stuck in low paid employment in London is unprecedented.

Whilst we know the narrative that people should be better off in work, in London this is not always the case because of the cost and type of housing on offer, job insecurity, the quality of jobs and the benefit cap.

More than a quarter of Londoners live in poverty (27%) and the majority of people in poverty are in working households. This comes from my ‘go to’ resource of choice – the London Poverty Profile*, which also highlights the differences in each of the London boroughs.

A recent find on twitter highlighted how worse off people in low pay are in London. They are more likely than anywhere else in the country to have experienced the greatest rise in living costs, yet the lowest growth in wages, well behind those in Scotland, the East and South East of England.

And there are differences in how this plays out in different parts of the capital.

According to the London Poverty Profile*, there are five outer London boroughs reported to have the highest proportion of jobs that are below the London Living Wage (£9.75 phr). Landlord possession rates (figures for London are more than double national rates) are also higher in outer London and there are more people in poverty who are renting privately than in social housing.

These statistics chime with the work we have been doing in several London boroughs over the past 12 months to help better understand local needs and design appropriate solutions.  

Many people are living in precarious circumstances directly linked to reduced income and ability to afford housing:


  • for those in work
  • those needing to find work because of welfare reform changes
  • and those that cycle in and out of work because they cannot sustain employment.

Our experience of reviewing local employment initiatives is that whilst they are rightly focused on helping people get a job, there can often be little evidence or tracking to measure the impact of their intervention in helping a person sustain that job and improve their financial situation.

The quality and pay level of a job should be equally important as getting a job in the first place. 

There needs to be a shift in focus from getting a job, to getting into a London Living Wage job, as there is a danger that investments being made to help people get back to work, could be making in-work poverty worse.

We also think that employment interventions used to help manage service demand, or support early intervention, might not lead to the savings for services such as housing and social care that councils expect.

Rocket Science has developed a model and cost benefit analysis that helps to determine council savings linked to poverty reduction. This information makes a compelling case for councils and local partners to focus their employment interventions on securing London Living Wage jobs, or help those in lower-paid jobs to access better paid employment.

By shifting employment interventions to focus on poverty reduction, this brings sustained returns for the person in terms of increased income, as well as tangible savings for the council.


Caroline is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out her profile here.

A broken fingernail and the #forgottenmany

A broken fingernail and the #forgottenmany

Why we need to rethink how we fund need and look beyond the Indices of Multiple Deprivation.

A few months ago, I was chatting to a group of my peers at a networking event about all things London. It was going well until a wave of incredulity swept over me followed by a collective rolling of eyes, when I revealed that I was leading a project to understand unmet need in the London Borough of Richmond.

“Need? Poor loves… Did someone break a fingernail and couldn’t get to the nail bar in time” exclaimed one, “Or perhaps they tripped over a grape at Waitrose” chortled another. Usually when I talk about my work, it often piques some professional interest from others, feigned or otherwise. I was certainly not expecting derision.

When we started this work last summer, we had to really think about what need looks like in an area measured by high wealth and low deprivation. We also had to think about the implications of that need in terms of funding, service delivery and public sector investment.

Nearly ten years ago, we conducted a similar piece of research, albeit different in approach, for the Cripplegate Foundation. Invisible Islington clearly illustrated the dynamics of need and challenge in a borough where wealth and poverty live side by side.  We anticipated that we would reach similar findings in Richmond, although we did not expect need to be so heavily impacted by the local economy and housing market.

There is a price to pay for living in the borough when you are in need.

  • Choices about how you spend your Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment are restricted as the cost of services are high, leaving you unable to pay for all the care to which you are entitled.
  • Care costs are at a premium, driven up by competition, and demand exceeding local supply as care workers have to commute because they cannot afford to live locally.
  • Despite strong transport routes in places, in others, many people find it difficult getting around and cannot spare money for a bus fare.
  • Disabled people unable to access services, living in fear of benefit sanctions and experiencing hate crime.
  • Mental health issues being exacerbated by a disjointed system as vulnerable people ‘bump’ around services, having multiple assessments but experiencing little follow-through and action.
  • Many just about coping but living On the Edge of crisis. A change in circumstance, a charity closing or a service restricting access could tip the balance and put them in a crisis. Not just a terrible cost for them but also creating greater costs on the public purse. Resolving crisis is far more expensive than preventing it in the first place.


Admittedly this pattern of need could be found anywhere in any place. But Richmond is one of the last places one would expect it to be so marked. Our work in other London boroughs, is highlighting a growing issue of increased polarisation between poverty and wealth. This is something we identified in Islington in 2008, but it is getting worse as a consequence of the compounding effects of the London housing market, welfare reform and cost of living.

The problem with places like Richmond and other outer London boroughs, is that deprivation and need is dispersed over a wider area and not concentrated within a particular postcode. Rural areas face similar challenges as do many other places across the country.

Making funding or investment decisions based on where an area scores on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) ignores the fact that need still exists. This means that people in need who live in these areas suffer a double disadvantage – they do not get access to funding others can get and are less likely to be able access services to help them either because they do not exist or are too far away.   We are calling these people the #forgottenmany.

Many of the charities we speak to are not able to access funding because IMD is used to make funding decisions and therefore their applications fall at the first hurdle. These charities, often smaller, provide vital support and services to the #forgottenmany, but face greater risk of cutbacks and closure as they cannot get funded.

We know the competition for funding is getting harder and harder and that IMD will continue to be used a way of knocking out deserving causes. So we have to find new ways of harnessing investment and resources to address need. But we also have to rethink how we make decisions on funding need. Whilst IMD is one instrument, it has its flaws.

Finally, we must reset our thinking, perceptions and prejudices about places.  Okay the broken fingernail comment was in jest and in a small group.

But I bet many others would have thought the same thing. Did you?

Our research in Richmond was funded by Richmond Parish Lands Charity and Hampton Fuel Allotment Charity included; a review of data, consultation with over 80 organisations and interviews with residents to capture their story what life feels like when you are in need in Richmond.  ‘On the Edge’ officially launches on the 9th May 2017. Contact me if you would like more information.

Caroline is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out her profile here.

Charities – down to the wire

Charities – down to the wire

Small and medium charities are struggling to survive.  In this article, Caroline Masundire reflects on the reasons why and what needs to be done to support them in the future.

Many small and medium sized charities are bearing the brunt of austerity – losing grants and contracts whilst managing increasing demand for their services which are no longer funded. In any other situation you would want to throw in the towel, pack up and go home.

• Decisions to reduce public funding have meant that only those with high needs or tick a box get supported – effectively withdrawing help for swathes of people who still need it, yet are no longer eligible
• This in turn has created a fight for survival and increased competition as organisations cross borders and service boundaries to secure contracts and funding in areas where they may have little experience or knowledge
• So when services get recommissioned through a single contract only those organisations with the balance sheet, resources and approach to risk are fit to apply and/or have the security of TUPE commitments on their side… and it is not just the private sector
• Funders may be reluctant to plug the gap in statutory services, favouring new, innovative solutions to problems which they can pump-prime, yet will be difficult to sustain once their funding ends
• Which in turn creates further competition for limited resources and investment goes to those that can demonstrate ‘my impact is bigger than yours’
• Meanwhile people that need services and support go to the organisation they trust and have built a relationship with, which is no longer funded to help them. Yet it finds a way.

This story is by no means new –this has been happening for years but it is having a compounding effect, not just on the smaller and medium sized VCS but most importantly on the people that need their help. The unintended consequences of service design, commissioning and funding decisions are taking their toll and causing people such additional stress that their mental health suffers.  Navigating public services makes their challenges much greater than they needed to be.

People need to talk to someone when they are in crisis, we are human after all. An online service may help signpost you to services if you know what you are looking for, or give you an email address to get in touch with someone – that is if you have an email address, access to a device or mobile. I wrote last year about Dorothy, an elderly lady who had effectively been neglected by public services and was just about managing to live independently with the support of neighbours.



It took me nearly an hour negotiating around the ‘computer says no’ culture of the bank to get them to send her a cheque book so she could get money out of her account. The reliance on ‘digital by default’ as the panacea for citizen interaction is ill-judged and poorly thought through.

Equally no amount of ‘nudge theory’ is going to help someone with a learning disability who does not understand that if they do not attend an assessment interview with DWP, they will lose their disability benefit. Even if a letter is sent to them three times – it does not help them understand it any better. They just get sanctioned, lose their benefit, go into crisis and all the arrangements that have taken years to build around their life fall apart.

And if you have multiple needs then be prepared for lots of different assessments in different places by different organisations to access services that are not joined up and compete with each other.

I accept this may not be the experience of everyone, but it is happening to a significant number of people, who, already vulnerable and at risk, are caught in the (muddled) middle.

It is in his muddled middle where the true value of small and medium sized charities comes into play, as they help people to navigate through systems and services, assessments and appointments. Often this work is unpaid, yet critical to wiring public services together, but an activity which is generally hidden and hard to measure.

The Lloyds Bank Foundation, is actively championing small and medium-sized charities and has produced sobering evidence on the impact of funding and commissioning across the country. It makes recommendations around changes to commissioning, flexibility around funding and improved grant-making practice.

However, as statutory funding reduces and competition for grants to plug gaps increases, small and medium sized charities will inevitably face difficult decisions about their future. These decisions are ultimately influenced by the extent to which public agencies, funders and other stakeholders are prepared to change, do things differently and work together. The trouble is change takes time and time is something that we have very little of.

Caroline Masundire


Caroline is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out her profile here.