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Conclusions and recommendations

This chapter summarises the critical insights and lessons learnt to help guide the implementation of future programmes. These should be reviewed alongside findings from the economic and impact assessment, which ran parallel to this evaluation.

The localised, context-sensitive, and tailored support that characterised Connecting Communities helped participants become more aware of employment opportunities and adopt more positive dispositions and behaviours towards work. However, some groups were more likely to achieve job outcomes than others. In future, proactively seeking ways to overcome barriers to work beyond effectively supporting individuals could be explored. Systemic factors, such as employer willingness to offer flexible work, support for people with health conditions, accessibility of public transport, childcare costs, and unreliable internet connectivity, were found to impede employment. These systemic factors can vary across localities, so it is imperative to develop an intimate understanding of local contexts for place-based employment support programmes to succeed. The WMCA has a role in co-ordinating the response across all these policy domains, bringing together both employers and the public sector to best match the skills and requirements of local people with demand from employers. A job fit-orientated approach, that matches jobs against individuals’ skills, interests, and circumstances was found to generate positive employment and job sustainment outcomes. This job-fit orientated approach works in conjunction with strong partnership working.

By providing avenues for networking, local partnership working not only mutually builds social capital amongst community stakeholders, but it also promotes encounters between customers and potential employers. However, ‘local’ does not mean ‘insular’. Whilst local partnership working was critical to the success, local partnerships should be guided by a wider, coherent strategy that also takes stock of national and regional circumstances. Connecting Communities demonstrated synergy across national, regional, local, and community-level structures.

Insights: Partnership working

The commissioning of different types of providers allowed the creation of localised solutions drawing on local knowledge of challenges and opportunities, the mitigation of risks, and the adjustment of approaches as challenges arose. Working with both smaller and larger providers, and national and local organisations (including national employment support organisations, local further education colleges and a local football club) brought different skill sets to bear. In Connecting Communities providers had opportunities to learn from each other. They also benefited from the WMCA being an approachable commissioner sensitive to reasonable requests for change in the light of experience and changing circumstances.

Contracting with a range of different providers with their own local knowledge, together with the emphasis on developing relationships with local partners, including residents’ groups and representatives, helped to place a central focus on local challenges and opportunities. It enabled making connections and linking up across different elements of the local infrastructure which is central to a holistic approach. It also fostered the development of trust-based relationships. Here the creation of a different brand was helpful in attracting some participants and employers.

Connecting Communities also permitted the adoption of innovative methods to engage target populations, including through a mix of having a regular presence in shared spaces such community centres, community cafes, libraries, and food banks, as well as distributing leaflets at leisure centres and in supermarkets. A targeted social media campaign by one provider focusing on specific sub-groups of residents (notably those on furlough) was also deemed successful.

Overall, the local design and flexible nature of Connecting Communities was a positive feature in enabling tailoring to local needs and making adaptations to changing circumstances in a way that is more difficult for nationally designed programmes with no or limited flexibilities. However, whilst a localised approach gave way to more context- sensitive employment support initiatives, differing contract values led to concerns about financial viability in some cases. This depended on the level of organisational financial resilience, due to the outcomes-based nature of the contract, over-dependence on one or two members of staff whose absence could stall delivery, and cashflow in some cases.

Initially, local authorities served as a key partner and source of practical support for providers. This practical support took the form of providing event venues, brokering partnerships between communities and prospective providers, and sharing available information to help identify potential participants. However, not all local authorities provided equal levels of support to their affiliated lots. Notably, local authorities with dedicated employment and skills teams were able to provide more extensive support. As such, providers’ experience of support differed. The WMCA could consider asking Local Authorities to commit a minimum level of support for employment programmes, so that providers are clear and the offer is more even across geographies.

Commissioning timescales limited possibilities for programme co-design with local communities. Providers felt that a longer bidding period could have enabled them to better build the future legacy of the programme. As such, for future commissions where community-engagement is important, more time should be allowed to build partnerships and involve communities. What time is sufficient will depend on the complexity of the project, the importance of building community capability and legacy. However, recruitment and training of staff often takes around three months. Then a further three months may be required to work with partners and establish working practices and processes. Where staff with relevant local knowledge can be recruited more quickly the timeframe required could be shorter.

A range of organisations were engaged by providers to support the programme, including community organisations, faith organisations, food banks, training providers, and health organisations. These partners provided support in several ways, including: (a) providing a venue; (b) referring participants; (c) providing wraparound support; (d) providing work experience opportunities; and (e) engaging with employers and sourcing vacancies. They have been engaged without providers paying for use of their resources. The degree to which this support facilitated service provision underscores the need for partnership working across local organisations in place-based employment support programmes. In the future, especially as European Social Fund monies come to an end, ensuring how to effectively remunerate community organisations for their contribution should be explored.

Providers stressed the importance of being present in the community. Constant physical presence in the community from the start of the implementation period paid off even further in the face of challenges brought about by the pandemic. Partnerships with the community organisations, which were established through providers’ constant physical presence early in programme implementation, helped to develop the needed social capital to harness partners’ resources as caseloads moved to remote working. Furthermore, constant physical presence created opportunities for unforeseen encounters, to the benefit of providers, existing customers, and prospective customers alike. Providers co- located in settings where there were other activities (not obviously related to employment support). This enabled different individuals to be engaged and facilitates cross-referring between support services, helping both partners and customers to build networks.

The providers looked to each other for support. Providers were appreciative of knowledge-sharing opportunities since they served as avenues for networking, peer support, and collaborative development of strategies to address common difficulties. For instance, three providers in closely located neighbourhoods in East Birmingham and Solihull shared ideas and worked together to some extent, sharing contacts and practice. The providers had opportunities to share experience at meetings convened by WMCA in the earlier stages of Connecting Communities. However, with the onset of the pandemic and changes in the organisational structure of the WMCA, some of this momentum was lost at a time when smaller providers would have benefitted from it. In future contracts, the WMCA should ensure it facilitates collaboration consistently during the lifetime of contracts.

In addition to these internal governance structures, providers found ways to involve community stakeholders in programme governance. Community-level governance structures included steering groups, community connector groups, and community forums. The involvement of community stakeholders in governance is an arrangement that would benefit future place-based employment support programmes. Not only did this create community buy-in, but it also allowed providers to maintain a deep understanding of the needs of communities, for example through the involvement and engagement of local counsellors and residents’ groups. These representatives tended to be well- networked locally and be a source of support and advice for employment support providers. However, it took staff time and resource to engage with communities in this way, and consideration needs to be given to the inclusion of all parts of the community (eg through faith groups).

  • Commissioning timescales need to enable local stakeholders and providers to be closely involved in programme co-design, particularly where community engagement and legacy are important.

  • The WMCA should consider how to facilitate a minimum level of contribution from Local Authorities to support the delivery of employment support programmes in their area.

  • Providers need to prioritise building trust with local community leaders. A trusting relationship with local community leaders eases identification of new partners.

  • Providers should strive to be physically present, in a consistent manner, within the community. While remote services are valuable, a physical presence facilitates building social capital between providers and local community organisations, and encounters with participants.

  • Future programmes should consider how to remunerate the contributions of community partners, for example in making referrals or providing meeting space, which were unfunded in Connecting Communities.

  • Local governance structures should help promote knowledge-sharing and problem-solving between providers and be delivered consistently over time, including through staff changes.

  • Community-level governance structures, such as community forums, should complement local governance structures. Involving community stakeholders in governance not only promotes community buy-in but it enables understanding of community needs.

Insights: Promotion and engagement

The programme took longer than anticipated to mobilise. Although capacity to start in June 2018 was assessed as part of the procurement process, an extended mobilisation period was required by the providers to recruit staff, source venues, and establish community links to gain referrals. Future contracts should ensure a time for providers to develop capacity and capability and recognise the length of time required to become fully operational. For example, recruiting and training staff takes in the region of three months. Once in post, these staff need time to work with partners, and establish working processes to deliver the contract. Ideally, a set-up time of around six months should be expected.

A multi-pronged approach to promotion enabled the programme to reach a diverse set of participants. Providers used leaflets and promotional materials, ran events, and encouraged partners and participants to refer people from the communities. Community events, which were often organised in partnership with local community partners, were important to participant engagement.

Most participants who engaged with the programme were embedded and received substantial support. This low attrition indicates that, even from the early stages of programme delivery, providers were able to build a trusting rapport with participants, primarily through positive participant-provider interactions.

However, the onset of the pandemic and the resulting restrictions on in-person gatherings reduced opportunities for social interaction. Social media therefore became a source of new participants. Participants recruited through social media tended to have higher skill levels (including digital skills), more recent work experience, and internet access.

  • The contracting process should allocate ample time for providers to recruit staff, locate venues, and build capability.

  • Using different promotional methods proved effective. Future programmes should use a combination of marketing collaterals and community events for promotional purposes.

  • Whilst social media has allowed the programme to reach a larger array of customers, future programmes should not rely on it exclusively. Digital-only marketing risks excluding potential customers who are less digitally literate or have limited access to the internet. Engagement and marketing strategies need to be informed by the target groups of participants, and considerations of the places they go (and the times they go there), and social media platforms they use. Differentiation is key as evidenced by the effectiveness of varied strategies to engage the in-work group and long-term unemployed groups used by providers.

Insights: Pre-employment support

Connecting Communities was successful in moving unemployed individuals towards work: the programme surpassed its targets for job starts. The job outcome rate varied between providers. The regression analysis revealed that, controlling against other factors including participant characteristics, participants in the group of providers that were small to medium-sized which a local focus, were more likely than providers in the East Birmingham Partnership to find work. Small-medium sized lots had greater flexibility to pivot and to experiment with innovative approaches. In addition, many were embedded locally prior to Connecting Communities, which is likely to have built trust with partners and participants alike. The buoyancy of local labour markets, and the suitability of opportunities to the skills of participants offers an alternative explanation.

Participants demonstrated a wide range of support needs – the most common ones being: (a) employability support; (b) building confidence and motivation for work; and (c) obtaining necessary skills and qualifications. Various personal circumstances, such as debt, childcare responsibilities, health conditions, and lack of affordable transportation, were reported as being barriers to securing employment. This highlights the need for flexible and responsive support. Furthermore, participants aged 16–24 were less likely to remain in their jobs, which could be attributed to the career exploration that is common to younger people as they gain experience of employers. As such, younger customers could potentially benefit from career coaching and orientation to increase retention. In short, the large variety of needs and circumstances expressed by participants underscores the need for tailored, individualised support.

Since participant needs and competencies varied widely, the forms of support provided to them also varied. Whilst most of the completed actions aligned with activities identified in the action plan, there were exceptions. Some participants did not pursue certain activities laid out in their action plan whilst others pursued activities that were not identified in their action plan. These changes demonstrate how support needs can vary over time, highlighting the importance of constant communication between participants and advisors. The WMCA could consider how to coordinate and facilitate communication between providers. For example, by co-ordinating a database of participants across employment support programmes (and more widely). Capturing information about participants and their changing needs systematically would provide evidence about how services need to adapt and respond. Connecting Communities also demonstrated the importance of commissioners being responsive to change in customer need.

It must also be noted that the lack of support activities provided for programme participants with English as a second language was a source of inequity. Consideration should be given to how participants can access this provision should it be identified as a barrier to work. The regression analysis for participants finding work, highlighted that those participants with no qualifications were significantly less likely than participants in other qualification groups to gain a job outcome. Consideration could be given to how to effectively build qualification and skills progression into employment support for this group. This is especially important, given the disadvantage experienced by individuals with little to no formal qualifications.

A lack of opportunities for work experience emerged as a common theme; this is a potential area for programme-wide working. Participants, especially in the Hardest to Help group, described how volunteering opportunities helped them build their confidence and self-efficacy, which in turn facilitated acquisition of employment. Given the positive impact of volunteering opportunities, the fact that they were relatively lacking in Connecting Communities represents an untapped potential for future place-based programmes to generate more positive outcomes. It must be acknowledged, however, that lockdowns caused by the pandemic made it difficult to arrange volunteering and work placements. However, future place-based programmes should bolster this form of support.

Strong employer engagement presents an opportunity to fill this gap in work placement and volunteering opportunities. Connecting Communities might have benefitted from a programme-wide strategy for sourcing vacancies and placements – particularly with larger employers and those with a national focus. Providers wanted to engage employers to encourage them to offer placements, vacancies, and to refer in-work participants. If the WMCA were to have undertaken this role, it would have been a new way of working on employment programmes with the commissioner co-ordinating at least some employer engagement activity. This programme-wide approach to strategy development has been successfully adopted by other employment support programmes with a local orientation; the Restart scheme uses a similar employer engagement model, with the ReAct Partnership, composed of six prime providers, taking the steering role.

In addition, Connecting Communities benefited from strong relationships between participants and providers, so promoting staff retention should be a priority in employment programmes. In some areas, staff vacancies slowed the recruitment of participants, and staff turnover adversely affected the development of trust with participants and wider communities.

New providers taking over lots during programme implementation felt that the handover of caseloads had not been well-managed, leading to some participants disengaging. Employment advisors noted that smaller caseloads helped them provide more intensive, individualised support to participants. In contrast, advisors whose caseloads were at the upper end of the reported range reported the contrary. As such, where possible, it is ideal to maintain reasonably sized caseloads for employment advisors. However, data on hand does not allow for the estimation of an optimal caseload size; the economic impact assessment conducted in parallel to this evaluation could provide this information.

Regression analysis also highlighted groups that were less likely when other characteristics were controlled for, to be supported into work by the programme. This included participants with a health condition or disability. Participants in this group were significantly less likely to secure a job. However, once in work, health condition and disability was not a significant factor affecting sustainment at 13 weeks. For employment services supporting all residents, more consideration could be given to how to overcome and support health barriers to work, whether through accessing wider health provision alongside employment support, or working with employers to broker access to suitable vacancies and/ or make suitable workplace adaptations. Whilst the service was personalised, it might not have been sufficiently so to overcome the barriers to work among this group. Personalisation of services could be bolstered by working more closely with employers to locate appropriate job opportunities and arrange for working conditions that accommodate customers’ diverse needs.

  • Smaller caseload sizes allow for greater levels of individualised support, and therefore, providers should strive to designate a reasonable number of customers per advisor, such as the 50 required by Connecting Communities. This number will be dependent on the level of support participants need which is likely to vary by the length of time out of work, and the mix and needs of participants is crucial in determining the caseload size. However, the data available for this evaluation did not allow for an estimation of an optimum caseload size. The economic impact assessment that ran parallel to this evaluation could potentially give some direction on this issue.

  • Community focus, person-centredness, and flexible delivery were amongst the principal strengths of the programme. Future place-based programmes should maintain these elements.

  • Employment support should focus on job matching to participants’ skills and interests. Where job matching takes place, customers were not only more likely to find a job, they were also more likely to stay longer in their job.

  • The offer would have benefited from a stronger focus on work-placement and volunteering. Strengthening employer engagement and adopting a programme-wide approach to strategy development could help bridge this gap.

Insights: In-work support

Reaching the in-work group, looking for progression, was challenging. More modest outcomes in relation to in-work progression were in part due to many providers having little prior experience of working with this groups, reflecting the main emphasis of active labour market policy. Learning about approaches to in-work progression was discussed and shared at a meeting of partners.

Connecting Communities adopted a specific definition of in-work progression: defining in- work progression as a 10% increase in wages. This conception could partly explain the modest in-work progression outcomes observed. Subsequent place-based employment support programmes should consider expanding their view of in-work progression. For example, lateral career movements that would enable future vertical (that is, promotional) career movements could count as in-work progression. It must be noted, however, that this expanded definition of in-work progression will be more difficult to quantify.

According to advisors, the nature and timing of the conversation about in-work progression was critical to how participants responded. For instance, participants whose children reached an age where they were more independent, or started school, were more receptive to a progression conversation. Since participants can have very different circumstances and competencies at any given time, individualised support is crucial.

The demand side of in-work progression must also be considered. In some areas, there were few roles that presented opportunities for progression. As such, some providers concluded that there was limited employer interest in the professional development of in- work participants with their existing employer and participants looked for progression opportunities in the external labour market. However, whilst progression in the external labour market is always a valid option, it is important for providers to constructively engage with employers to determine how progression opportunities can be integrated into the jobs offered to participants.

  • Many providers had limited experience giving support to customers who were currently employed. Providers should build their advisors’ capability to deliver in-work support. This includes understanding where to effectively promote in-work support to potential participants, and the messages that might resonate. Developing capabilities to deliver careers advice among advisers and how to effectively engage with employers beyond job entry are key skills for advisers supporting the in-work group. Considering progression upon joining the workforce and supporting the training of new entrants to progress could be an effective way to for employment support providers to work with large organisations in the medium-term. More generally, consideration could be given to understanding common progression pathways within organisations and sectors in the region.

  • The programme used a limited definition of in-work progression. Future programmes should consider expanding this definition to include lateral career movements that boost workers’ future promotional prospects.

  • Discussions about in-work progression should be appropriately timed with customer’s life circumstances. The importance of timing reinforces the need for individualised support.

  • Providers should engage and build partnerships with employers so that job opportunities can be designed with a view towards career progression, where possible.

Insights: Adapting to the pandemic

It is important to consider the impact of the pandemic on providing support to participants. Overall, providers responded flexibly and adaptably. They continued to provide support to participants remotely when premises were closed during lockdown. In addition, advisors provided a greater focus on wellbeing and wider support and encouraged and supported participants wanting to work to consider sectors with growing vacancies. Participants appreciated the convenience of communicating with their advisors over the phone, but many still expressed a preference for face-to-face meetings. This was especially the case for participants who, amidst the move to virtual provision, were disadvantaged by a lack of digital skills and IT equipment. Virtual support has become an important element in the employment services toolkit, but the availability of face-to-face services remains critical.

The pandemic created challenges for employer engagement during the initial and lockdown stages of the pandemic with sectors closed, for example. Furthermore, the economic impact could have also influenced job sustainment negatively. With businesses closing or downsizing because of the pandemic, some customers could have lost their employment, which would have brought down the job sustainment rate observed in this evaluation. The impact evaluation will provide insights.

WMCA’s flexibility during the pandemic was welcomed by providers. For example, the WMCA temporarily removed the profile cap on rapid progression participants to cater for the increase in people who were newly unemployed. In addition, they extended the geographies of the lots to neighbouring wards to bring more potential participants within scope. WMCA adjusted the way that payments were made to providers to support contract viability when Covid-19 impacted on previous ways of working.

  • Employment support programmes should focus on customer well-being and provide broad wraparound support (eg mental health, housing, personal finance).

  • Whilst customers appreciated remote support during the pandemic, many still expressed a preference for face-to-face support. This is particularly true for participants who had lower levels of digital skill or less access to digital infrastructure. Therefore, a flexible, hybrid modality of employment support is ideal.

  • Commissioners should have license to respond to changing local requirements and adapt provision to ensure it meets evolving community need.