The Department for Work and Pensions has been urged to review the leadership capability of middle managers across its Jobcentre network, as MPs said many welfare claimants still see frontline advisers "as policemen rather than genuine coaches".
The Jobcentre Plus network currently supports more than 700,000 unemployed welfare claimants across 713 centres, with front-line Work Coaches tasked with helping claimants find work as well as setting conditions for the ongoing receipt of benefits.
A new report by the commons Work and Pensions Committee says the scaling down of contracted-out welfare provision and the shift towards DWP's flagship Universal Credit reform will present "a broader and more challenging caseload of claimants" for Work Coaches in the future, with more claimants expected to be supported in-house.
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"This will include higher proportions of individuals with health conditions and disabilities, and people who are long-term unemployed," the report says.
Against that backdrop, the committee says the DWP must do more to shift the role of JCP staff from that of "policemen" to "supporters", with the department urged to set out how it will encourage and incentivise front-line advisers "to strike the right balance between coaching and conditionality".
"Much of whether JCP can achieve its objectives in supporting claimants with complex needs rests on Work Coaches and their relationships with claimants," the report says.
"Work Coaches are tasked with referring claimants for possible sanctions at the same time as supporting them into and in work. This combined role may mean that many claimants see JCP staff as policemen rather than genuine coaches, potentially undermining claimant trust and confidence.
"Trustful, positive and personalised support is central to the Work Coach model working effectively, but currently the department has little means of assessing how far this is being delivered."
"Positive and personalised"
The MPs say the DWP currently has "little means of assessing" whether Work Coaches are providing "positive and personalised support" to claimants, and calls for frontline staff to be given "more comprehensive" guidance on how to how to adopt "a flexible approach to conditionality" for vulnerable claimants, including people with health conditions or housing problems.
The report also says the capability of middle managers in the JCP network tends to "vary across regions", and warns that there may not be "a strong understanding amongst district managers of the direction and purpose of new reforms" introduced by the department.
The Public and Commercial Services Union told the committee during its inquiry that the JCP network had “significant numbers of inexperienced and untrained managers", with a large proportion of more junior staff “acting up” to plug the gap in management capability.
"We are concerned that without a strong understanding amongst district managers of the direction and purpose of new reforms, and good management of Work Coaches by branch managers, JCP will struggle to deliver the services expected," the committee of MPs says.
The committee therefore calls on the DWP to outline a clear set of expectations of the role district Jobcentre managers will be expected to play in overseeing changes to the welfare system, and says the department must "ensure that they are equipped to do this".
"We further recommend that the department commission an independent assessment of JCP district managers’ ability to deliver large-scale change," it adds.
"Similarly, branch managers have an important role in ensuring Work Coaches can carry out their extensive new functions. We recommend that the department ensure that clear guidelines on expectations of helping claimants into, and closer to, employment are incorporated into the Work Coach appraisal system, to be used by branch managers."
Among its recommendations, the committee also says Work Coaches who have proven themselves able to help claimant groups with complex needs should be promoted to a Senior Work Coach role at higher executive officer grade – taking on a smaller caseload of claimants including "disabled people, homeless claimants, self-employed claimants, lone parents, or those with drug and alcohol problems".
"Senior Work Coaches should continue to provide front-line support to claimants with substantial barriers to work, so that DWP staff increasingly master the greater 'skills' demands that will be placed on them by the government," the committee says.
Launching the new report, Work and Pensions committee chairman Frank Field said: "The government has expressed the need to reform capitalism, and to 'make work pay'
"We welcome the department's willingness to take a flexible approach to JCP’s services, and to try to support those who have been inadequately served by the current system.
"But we have grave concerns that shifting a raft of new, specialised demands and requirements onto JCPs, without significant training and preparation and with greatly reduced resources, is simply front-loading this brave new world for failure."
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said said the committee's report showed the need for DWP to reverse planned budget cuts and "invest in staff and resources".