There is no doubt that government employment policy has undergone some dramatic changes during the last ten years, leading to considerable improvements for unemployed people. However, it needs to further adapt in order to successfully serve those job seekers who are the most disadvantaged. The system will need to reward more than just the economic outcome of getting a job: it will also need to respond to community expectations by incorporating social and environmental outcomes into its policies and programs.
Looking back: where have we come from?
In 1998 a fundamental shift in government employment policy took place when the government contracted out employment services to private companies and community-based organisations, creating a competitive market place for their delivery.
Since the introduction of Job Network, employment policy, programs and service delivery have continued to change with each of the three subsequent employment services contracts, with the aim of providing better services to unemployed people generally, and with an ever increasing focus on providing quality services to those job seekers who are classified as particularly disadvantaged.
Within the first two Employment Services Contracts ESC1 and ESC2, the focus was on getting people in the door and placing them in a job, without the due concern and effort necessary to place people in sustainable employment. The payment structure in these first two contracts allowed providers to remain financially viable without achieving decent outcomes for their clients. During the time of these first contracts many clients were assessed, by Job Network providers, as being too difficult to place in a job and therefore these people received little or no support or assistance. After 12 months, these clients would simply drop off the providers’ case loads, meaning those clients who were the most disadvantaged were receiving the least help.
The government began to recognise the impact of its policies on both the sustainability of employment outcomes and the impact on the disadvantaged job seekers. Within the third Employment Services Contract (ESC3), the payment system was overhauled, so the most significant financial rewards are now received when an outcome is reached. (An interim outcome is paid to the Job Network provider when the job seeker has maintained their employment for 13 weeks and a final outcome paid after the client has maintained their employment for 26 weeks.)
The concept of a provider for “unemployed life” was also introduced. Consequently providers are now required to service the needs of their disadvantaged clients far better, as job seekers now remain active on the case load until they are finally employed.
These policy and payment shifts have had the desired effect of encouraging providers to ensure that the job is the right job for the job seeker and to focus the most effort on the most highly disadvantaged.
Current model - welfare to work reforms
With the introduction of the government’s new “welfare to work” reforms in the May 2005 Budget and the development of the parameters for employment services tenders later this year, all roads increasingly lead to the goal of employment. While many of the changes proposed are positive, the current system still needs further refinement in order to accommodate the special needs of the most highly disadvantaged job seekers.
The “Active Participation Model” (APM), which is the centrepiece of the “welfare to work” model, represents a continuum of servicing, so that job seekers are now engaged in a process with one Job Network provider. Through this process most job seekers attain employment at some stage, leaving the most highly disadvantaged clients on the case load.
However, the APM is premised on the assumption job seekers follow the model and remain engaged with the system. However, we know that many job seekers are not able to follow this linear pattern, and the reality for many people is that they move in and out of the system. This is particularly true for those people with a mental illness, who, due to the episodic nature of their illnesses, we often see moving from work, then back to a benefit and then out of the system all together.
For many people, attaining social outcomes such as finishing a course, attending an interview, even attending appointments at their Job Network provider, are all huge achievements and deserve to be recognised in some way - particularly as they represent significant steps towards eventually achieving a sustainable job.
The government has also made some significant structural changes to the distribution of programs across departments. Originally, employment programs were spread across several different federal government departments. This silo-based system created significant impediments for clients, mainly due to a lack of connectedness between programs. In short, the machinery of government arrangements were hindering rather than supporting the implementation of the government’s policy agenda.