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 in councils
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 councils 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7253 6289.