The DWP is failing ill and disabled people. Could community power be the way forward?
Tom Pollard, independent researcher, 7 February, 2020

Millions of people in communities across the country find it difficult, or even impossible, to work because of the impact of a disability or long-term health condition. These disabilities and health conditions are often part of a complex picture of wider social disadvantages such as poverty, problems with housing, loneliness and isolation, drug and alcohol addiction, and contact with the criminal justice system. You are more likely to become ill or disabled if you have faced these kinds of disadvantages, and you are more likely to face these kinds of disadvantages if you become ill or disabled. Whether people were born into disadvantage or fell upon hard times, once you are caught in this trap it is hard to get out.

For most people experiencing these kinds of circumstances, the Department for Work and Pensions plays a significant role in their lives: providing crucial financial support, but also placing demands and expectations on them, supposedly intended to support them into employment, that many people find incredibly stressful.

Just over a year ago, I published a paper with Demos about the 18 months I had spent on secondment at the DWP, advising on mental health in relation to benefits and back-to-work support. By the end of my time there, I had come to the conclusion that the DWP was institutionally and culturally incapable of effectively supporting ill and disabled people around employment, and my paper called for these responsibilities to be removed from the department.

I had some initial ideas about what an alternative approach might look like: I thought that local agencies such as health services, local authorities and third sector organisations were better placed to build the trusting relationships needed to deliver this type of support. However, I didn’t feel confident to set out a detailed vision of a new system, and so I left this question open at the end of the paper.

A couple of months later, I stumbled across NLGN’s Community Paradigm report and was excited by the big ideas and bold vision it contained. I also realised that it offered a framework for thinking about how employment services for people experiencing complex social disadvantage (such as the issues challenges described earlier) might be redesigned. If my Demos paper had shown why the DWP couldn’t support this group effectively, The Community Paradigm suggested how local communities could.

Through conversations with the fantastic team at NLGN, we started to develop the idea of a project to apply the community paradigm to the challenge of creating a more supportive, compassionate, effective and local approach to helping people experiencing complex social disadvantage into work. With the generous support of the Lloyds Bank Foundation, this project is now underway and we’ll be publishing a report later this year.

Working with NLGN’s Pawda Tjoa, we are currently in the first phase of the project – seeking out and talking to people involved in the best examples of local good practice from around the country that are already demonstrating elements of the community paradigm. This will mean that they are firmly rooted in local communities, with a range of relevant services and professionals working together to provide support to people, who should be able to be involved in the design and delivery of these services.

These good practice examples include local authorities incorporating employment into holistic strategies to support their most disadvantaged residents, health services helping people to think about work as part of their recovery, and third sector organisations delivering highly personalised services to those groups that have been failed by the Jobcentre and DWP’s employment schemes. Whatever the approach, we want to hear about what works well, and what they’re already able to achieve, but also what is standing in the way of them reaching more people and delivering better outcomes.

We will then reflect on what we have seen and heard at a local level, as the basis for both what needs to be built on and what needs to be changed, if we are to realise a transformative change to the current system that overcomes the challenges I have identified in my work, and meets the principles of the community paradigm.

This would mean going way beyond the current approach to devolution, where DWP ‘allows’ regions and providers to take on elements of a system that it very much owns. This system needs to be liberated from the control, the narrow parameters of delivery, and the reputational baggage inherent in the DWP’s dominance of this space. Trust and power need to be returned to the people the system is supposed to be helping, and the local ecosystems of services and professionals that are better placed to provide effective support based on genuine, collaborative relationships.

Once we have developed our ideas for how to achieve this shift in power, and our suggestions for how a new system could be built from the bottom up, we will return to those local practitioners we are speaking to now, as well as others working in this space at a national level, to seek their help in honing our proposals. We’ll then write all of this up into a report that we hope will provoke debate, and influence future policy-making.

If you’d like to contribute to this project, or would just like to be kept up-to-date with how it is progressing, please do get in touch with Pawda Tjoa or @PollardTom.