It was said that New Deal passed its first big landmark at the end of January with 100,000 being helped into jobs, training or work experience. Reflecting the importance placed on the programme, the Government announcement was fronted by the Prime Minister.
In fact the figures are both better - and worse - than the Government says. Results for the first 12 months of New Deal confirm that 214,000 young people have entered the programme. And 86,000 have already left - of which about 45% have gone straight into jobs. As a raw job entry rate that is very good compared to previous Government schemes.
The critics say these are openings that many might have got anyway. True. But hopefully, the ES will have "screened" vacancies to the individuals rather better than usual and matched these young people to jobs that will keep them employed in the longer term.
Of those who are still "on New Deal" a surprisingly small proportion are undertaking one of the 4 flagship "options" - just 36%. Almost all the rest - 78,000 of them - are still on the preparatory Gateway phase of the programme.
This is not what was expected. The Gateway is a bit of New Deal that New Labour did not invent. The Civil Service thought it up because - rightly - they could see that unemployed young people could not be routed into one of the 4 options without some kind of assessment. And with years of running fortnightly reviews and Restart interviews, the Employment Service offered up a model based on what they knew about.
In many regards, it is working well. But in others it is not. Take the 27,000 young people who had their first New Deal interview in July. Almost half of these July starters were still on the Gateway when their 4 months' were up. Worse still, a quarter were still there at the end of December - 6 months after starting.
The ES's disturbingly blunt jargon labels them as "over-stayers". But these young people are being failed by a system that is meant to help them and by people who are overwhelmingly committed to making New Deal a success. Why?
At first, we thought the Gateway backlogs were caused by shortages of places on the options. But with 50,000 employers promising subsidised jobs and thousands of voluntary organisations asking "where are our New Dealers" this is not the case.
Instead, the problems lie with the Gateway itself: for the claimants, it seems to involve short spells of activity punctuated by long spells of nothing in particular. This is wrong. The Gateway should give participants a sense of momentum and early success which means providing a richer mix of option tasters and more intensive spells of assessment and guidance.
This requires more effective diagnostic tools. A reason for slow Gateway progress is that ES staff simply do not know what their clients need. Paradoxically, the general "softly, softly" approach of New Deal may be leading to a "slowly, slowly" culture. Participants need to be asked simple and direct questions that identify their skills, work history, job readiness, interests, aptitude. And where claimants may face fundamental barriers, these need to be diagnosed early on by staff who are sufficiently skilled to use (say) literacy and numeracy testing.
A key lesson however is that ES staff cannot do all of these things themselves. And this is where the Gateway's vision is failing too. The myriad organisations that are nominally contracted to supply specialist services are not being used enough. Meanwhile the ES Personal Adviser is trying to be all things to the claimant. Instead they should be concentrating on effective case management and not trying to be social workers.
There are some structural fixes that might help too. Many external providers are actually losing money running New Deal. When they are small non profit organisations, that is bad news for the ES because they will surrender contracts unless things get better. Providers need either to receive capacity based funding or a more predictable flow of clients. This is not impossible. New Deal partnerships are currently reviewing their Delivery Plans for the next year, so they could re-cast their contracting arrangements. The more bold should opt for a new relationship with Gateway providers in which they move away from the old fashioned, payment-by-results, adversarial culture in which call-off contracts are awarded on price and obscured amidst a fog of commercial confidentiality.
Now all this does not just apply to New Deal. Pilots for the Single Work Focused Gateway start in the Summer and the legislation to roll it out nationally has just been published (see page ?). The Single Gateway will be substantially modelled on the New Deal Gateway. If we don't get the latter right, the former will prove to be less effective at helping groups of people who have become trapped in a benefit sysem that reinforces their economic inactivity and alienation from the labour market.