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On 7 June 2012 - 5:07pm

Charities or social enterprises should be the main contractors for the work programme. No one can doubt their motives and they should be given a chance to prove their efficacy.”

That’s the conclusion of the Red Tory, Phillip Blond, reflecting on the possible lessons to be gleaned from what’s now being called the ‘London Bridge incident’, in which private security firm Close Protection UK provided unemployed ‘volunteers’ with the ‘opportunity’ to sleep under London Bridge and get changed in public before doing a 14-hour shift stewarding for the Queen’s Jubilee.

The potency of Blond’s suggestion that the incident proves charities and social enterprise should be given a chance to deliver the Work Programme is possibly slightly reduced by the fact that this character-building communion with the elements was the result of placements set up by by the charity, Tomorrow’s People – whose CEO, Debbie Scott, is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.

Earlier in his piece, Blond argues: “… the big contractors are not fit for purpose. Welfare to work requires a wider ethos and a more localised approach. Payment-by-results is not conducive to augmenting people’s skills because the emphasis on “duration” of employment detracts from the “quality of outcomes”; the current incentive is to put people into low-wage jobs that lack prospects.

Blond is certainly correct in his claims if we assume that the purpose of the Work Programme is to provide unemployed people with the support they need to get back into work. Unfortunately, the problem – one that affects the government’s wider Big Society agenda as a whole – is that it the Work Programme is, at best, a mish-mash of conflicting purposes and at worst, a scheme devoid of any meaningful purpose other than short term cost-cutting.

Point 8.20 of the recent Big Society Audit – published by Civil Exchange – notes that: “On the one hand, the Government is seeking to give more power to individual people in their communities, for example, through the 24 free schools already opened, and on the other there appears to be an implicit bias toward large, and therefore mainly private sector businesses in tendering processes.

Adding that as a result: “There is a need to revisit commissioning practices in the light of wider Big Society goals to ensure that they give fair access to every type of organisation, including the voluntary sector, so that those that genuinely provide the best value can win.

Unfortunately, the decision about who offers ‘the best value’ is based at least as much on the values of the people or organisations making the decision as it’s based on ascertaining unambiguous facts. If the government decides – as it currently is deciding – that the best value option for the public is back-to-work provison that saves money (on back-to-work provision, if not unemployment benefits) in the short term, big private contractors are entirely fit for purpose. They’re the only organisations in a position to take a short-term hit while waiting to profit-handsomely from the significant payments-by-results on offer for co-ordinating lengthy supply chains of poorly-rewarded (or, in some cases, unrewarded) sub-contractors.

But as Blond points out, it’s the way the contracts are designed that’s the key issue. Amongst my many concerns about the current agenda around social investment, is the apparent implication that what social enterprises need is the capital that will enable them to compete with the likes of private sector back-to-work providers, A4E and Ingeus on their own terms.

It’s likely that some social entrepreneurs have spent so long wallowing in their own rhetoric that they assume that if only we had social enterprises at the head of the Work Programmes payment-by-results supply chains everything would be all right. In reality, a social enterprise prime contractor delivering the Work Programme in its present form would be under just as much pressure as a private company to focus its resources on getting those unemployed people needing the lowest level of support into (at best) low-paid jobs but more likely zero-hours contracts and volunteering opportunities.

And the fact any profits generated from the activity would be ploughed back into enabling that social enterprises to bid for more contracts to deliver on the same basis would probably be of limited consolation to the people on the receiving end of the service. There is very little positive social impact to be gained from a greater role for social enteprises in executing bad ideas that don’t work.

In a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph, Social Enterprise UK chief executive, Peter Holbrook, pointed out that: “By employing private companies, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Work Programme has seen social enterprises elbowed out of the way – despite a track record of helping people back to work and supporting individuals and the economy.

He’s right but while the fact that the DWP’s Work Programme awarded most of its prime contracts to large private companies is a bad thing, the bigger problem is the programme that it’s employed them to deliver. Hopefully the greater prominence of social value in public sector commissioning promised by the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 will mark a move away from short-term thinking guided primarily by the desire for short-term cost savings. If it does, then not only will social enterprises hopefully get more contracts but all contracts, including those delivered by private companies, will be more likely to deliver positive social impact.