Today was my second appointment at the job centre – following on from my interview last week, described in the blogpost Signing on.
There’s still a mixture of fear of the unknown and a fear of being judged in this whole process that made the run up to today’s visit a little bit worrying. It’s a bit like going to the doctor or going to the dentist. It’s strange when you think about it. These people are public servants who in principle are there to help you out and make life’s trials and tribulations that little bit easier. So why worry? Is it the individual or the treatment that we worry about? The dentist or the dentists drill?
I reluctantly ploughed through the paperwork knowing that this was all a box-ticking exercise. As a former civil servant I’m more than familiar with box-ticking exercises. Badly-designed performance management systems are an example – and I’m yet to see the ‘holy grail’ of both a fit-for-purpose performance management system combined with a capable competent and inspiring people management culture that allows lots of people who work for such an organisation to hit their potential.
I’ve got my ‘job seeker’s agreement’
It’s written for a seven year old. Really. (What I mean by that is its patronising tone rather than accessibility of language – bearing in mind our continuing problems of illiteracy and innumeracy)
“I know I must do everything I can to
- find work
- improve my chances of finding work
- overcome things that might be making it harder for me to look for and get a job”
No one will be able to do everything they can to find or improve chances of finding work. There will always be something more that individuals can do.
It gets worse
“I know I must:
- actively seek work by doing at least [insert number] things a week
- show I have been actively seeking work every week, every time I attend the Jobcentre
- be available for work for the hours I have set out in this agreement
- apply for all jobs that Jobcentre Plus tells me to apply for”
The first bullet point above is a classic box ticking exercise. Making a speculative phone call, sending an email, asking a mate if anything is available – that’s three things for the week; job done. The problem with this approach is that it feels as if it has been written to catch people out rather than to help them into meaningful longterm employment. Stick rather than carrot.
The second bullet point wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they didn’t make the whole thing such a paper-based exercise – in particular with phone calls and conversations. As mentioned in my last article, my experience of seeing the screens that Jobcentre Plus uses clearly demonstrated that they were so last millennium. Last time I saw fonts like that I was playing a computer game from 1993. I’d like to think we’ve moved on from the decade when Darren Day was on Saturday Night TV.
As for the hours set in the agreement, there was the implication that I would be available to work a 9-5 or full-time job. What if people are only available or willing to do part-time work because of family/caring commitments? What about if they are doing voluntary work or are on a training course? Well…I have another form for that one. Again, another box-ticking exercise but no real acknowledgement that what I’m learning on this teacher training course is actually really useful and is more than likely to improve future employment prospects. And not because it’s a bit of paper either. (I know, bad form to start a sentence with the word “And”, but I had a bad experience at secondary school with English teachers…and art teachers…and music teachers…and physics teachers….I’ll stop there).
Finally, there is this bizarre final bullet point saying that I must apply for all jobs that the Jobcentre Plus tells me I must apply for. This is a completely counter-productive condition to have, and only increases the resentment between institution and citizen. The nature of working in a job centre means that the civil servants who work there will never have the amount of information that they need on an individual to have any idea on what jobs or careers that will be suitable for applicants.
Given the grades that front-line staff are employed at and the salaries that they are on, the chances of those staff having the competencies needed to make sound judgement calls on which jobs to apply for (and advice on how best to apply & present) is unlikely. Those that do should be paid far more than they currently are – in particular those that.
The adviser who I was with today recognised that the systems and processes he had to work with were hopelessly obsolete and were more of a hindrance than a help in my situation. I’m not looking for an entry-level admin job. I was nine years ago, but am not now. Jobcentre Plus struggles with people who are in effect freelancers and those who – like me effectively have portfolio careers. (i.e. we might be on college one day a week, volunteering one day a week, and working three days a week – all at various different times).
In the Jobcentre, just as with any other customer service environment, the calibre and attributes of the individual dealing with you makes a huge difference. My experience of job centres and job agencies also showed me the difference in incentives and demands for/of the two. In a job agency, the incentive is primarily a financial one. Taking on a sound agency worker provides a steady income stream for the agency (the cut that they take from the commissioning firm will make you wince) while securing permanent employment secures them a ‘finders’ fee. Fair enough – that’s what such agencies are for and that’s part of the deal.
The challenge that civil servants in job centres face is one similar to other frontline public service providers – they are the final safety net. Anyone who cannot find work through any other route finds themselves at a job centre. It is civil servants who then have to deal with them. This is not easy as this inevitably means having to work with people who are more than likely to have multiple problems and needs. Not the sort of stuff that hits the inboxes of executive headhunters.
My issues with the set up in Cambridge? (I’m going to list them here because I know a number of councillors, council officials and local activists read this blog so I hope this gives them food for thought)
Sparseness of the inside of the building
There’s no privacy for anyone – something I have a massive issue with because having too much of an open plan set up I feel strips some of the dignity that as human beings I’d like to think that we are all born with. The lack of a presence from anyone or any other organisation inside the job centre in a strange way gives an ‘adversarial’ feel to the place. I don’t get the feeling that the institution is on my side – when it should be.
I also did not see any newspapers or publications – such as the local jobs papers much in evidence. On both occasions a number of the ‘jobspoint’ machines broke down. I don’t know how reliable those machines are supposed to be – can any current or former civil servants shed any light?
The lack of other facilities adjacent/next to the job centre
This sounds strange but bear with me. There are no cafes or bakeries or convenience shops visible from the job centre. If anything something like that might give somewhere for people to go other than the waiting room waiting for their appointments.
No visible links with other employment agencies or established large (private sector) employers.
I’d like to see a much stronger presence from both employment agencies and the large private sector employers – is there a role for bringing in human resources staff from those agencies and firms (e.g. high street shops and supermarkets) to have day-release days to job centres on a regular basis and/or at scheduled times when demand for work is expected to peak? (For example in the run-up to Christmas – I’ve not seen adverts/posters for seasonal work, even though now is the time high street firms need to start recruiting).
The job centre systems and processes not being fit for purpose – not just for the long term unemployed but also for the growing numbers of ‘professional’ people who have become unemployed.
I’ve mentioned this in my previous post. During the ‘boom’ times, relatively few professional people found themselves dependent on the services of the job centre as an institution – and this point can be extrapolated nationwide. The PCS Union – whose members have been regularly raising problems in job centres (I declare an interest as a former PCS Union member and elected rep – so read about these regularly in union magazines) seemed to be one of the few organisations that spoke out both for the people who worked there and the service users during the good times. Now that unemployment is hitting the ‘middle classes’ (I hate that term but I’ll go with it for now), people with the knowledge, contacts and bloody-mindedness are beginning to speak out about how the systems and processes that they have funded and paid into through national insurance, are not working for them in their time of need.
As far as job-hunting is concerned, I’m not dependent on the systems, processes and facilities that the job centre has. I also have the support of my family – who I live with (because of their kindness and generosity – and because house prices are ridiculous in these parts I could never hope to afford my own place – even on my salary towards the end of my time in the civil service). This means that a withheld benefits payment is not the difference between eating and going hungry for the week. This blog post is not about me – it’s about trying to improve things for my fellow citizens. (No, I’m NOT Jon Culshaw’s Jeremy Kyle)
The public service ethos? That’s me. I spent a year working in banking between sixth form college and university. I was not cut out for it. Ironically out of the four 18/19 year olds that back office took on that year, the two people with university places secured for the following year decided to drop their places and stay with the bank, while myself and the other guy who joined the bank without having applied for a deferred place chose to apply for university and left the following summer.
I’d like to see more of Cambridge’s ‘professional’ types lean on those in power locally and nationally to help improve the systems and processes of our public services to help those less fortunate. The other thing that alarms me is the level of unclaimed benefits that people are entitled to – something that I picked up on Dr Eoin Clarke’s excellent blog The Green Benches. £13billion plus per year. Some might say that this saves the Treasury money. Yet this is an entitlement that we as a society, through Parliament have decided that people are entitled to as members of society.
If there is are problems with how the payments are made and who receives how much, improve the system. Where individuals break the law, we have a legal system to deal with that. It’s called the rule of law – something that people tend to appreciate only when that rule of law comes under threat. Let’s stop the stigmatisation of people on benefits – whether unemployed, disabled or the full time carers. After all, isn’t this the Big Society and aren’t we all in this together?