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Connecting Communities was a voluntary employment support programme funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and procured and overseen by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). It was tested across nine geographically defined neighbourhoods (also called ‘lots’) and ran for three and a half years. This period included the Covid-19 pandemic, which impacted on programme delivery, employment opportunities and everyday life more generally. The nine lots were located across the WMCA area: Birchills Leamore; Batchley and Brockhill; Cannock North; Washwood Heath; Shard End; Chemsley Wood; Binley and Willenhall; Camp Hill; and Glascote.

Emphasising intensive, personalised, and context-specific support, the programme sought to: (a) build social networks to foster positive behavioural and attitudinal changes towards work; (b) increase employment; and (c) work with local businesses to bolster the recruitment and progression of disadvantaged individuals. This evaluation identifies the factors that influenced employment and progression outcomes for participants, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the place-based approach to employment support more broadly. The study drew on qualitative data from observational site visits, in-depth interviews, and analysis of management information and claims data. An impact evaluation and assessment of cost-effectiveness will be published separately.

Performance against quantitative targets

Connecting Communities engaged over 4,000 participants, supporting over 3,250 participants with at least three meaningful interventions (meeting 82% of the target). Programme participants across the nine lots represented a diverse group of individuals, including people out of work for two years or more (36%), people out of work between one and two years (14%), people out of work for less than one year (35%), and people in-work and seeking to progress (16%). The population was ethnically diverse – with 42 per cent of participants identifying as belonging to a minority ethnic group. A quarter of participants reported having a health condition or a disability. Participants also possessed different levels of qualification and childcare responsibility.

The programme was successful in assisting unemployed participants, meeting 106 per cent of the target number of job starts. However, job sustainment rate was below targets across all time points (ie 13 weeks, 26 weeks, 52 weeks). It must be noted, however, that since a significant portion of the implementation was during the Covid-19 pandemic, business closures and downsizing, may have affected job sustainment. The impact evaluation will provide insight. The number of outcomes among participants who were in work to either increase their hours or earnings was below target (46% of the target value, supporting 458 people).

Employment outcomes varied across providers. Whilst, overall, 41 per cent of out-of-work participants found work, this proportion ranged between 21 per cent and 59 per cent between providers. This variability in employment and progression outcomes reflects the fact that providers who were more proactive in engaging employers through a range of methods and had prior experience in brokering jobs with employers had better outcomes. There was variation between out-of-work cohorts in their likelihood of finding employment: with 55 per cent of Rapid Progression participants finding work, compared to 30 per cent and 36 per cent of the Hardest to Help and Harder to Help cohorts, respectively.

Regression analysis exploring who found work showed that the likelihood of finding work was significantly higher among the Rapid Progression cohorts than the Hardest to Help group. Other factors related to the likelihood of finding work included not having a health condition and completing an action to identify possible jobs that matched skills. Compared with participants aged 25–34 years, participants aged between 35 and 54 were more likely to achieve a job outcome after controlling for other factors.

Regression analysis focused on 13-week sustainment found that, when controlling for other variables, participants aged between 35 and 54 and those completing actions to identify possible jobs that matched their skills were more likely to remain in work after 13 weeks. This indicates the importance and effectiveness of focusing on a good job match, aligned to skills, motivations, and interests.

Partnership and governance

Given the localised approach to service delivery, local authorities were involved in the commissioning process, implementing market warming sessions and awareness campaigns, sharing information with bidders, and scoring proposals from prospective providers. This localised approach allowed the WMCA and local authorities to include smaller providers, who sought to test innovative methods to engage individuals furthest from the labour market. For instance, one provider partnered with a community interest company (CIC) with strong roots in their respective area. This partnership allowed the provider to leverage the said CIC’s familiarity with the target community and their extensive network with local groups and organisations. Moreover, these innovative partnership models allowed providers to reach potential participants in ways beyond the traditional referral source for employment support of Jobcentre Plus.

However, commissioning timescales limited the extent to which prospective providers could engage with targeted communities and co-design interventions with community- level stakeholders prior to the commencement of delivery. In addition, local authorities and service providers needed to balance taking a localised approach and economies of scale. Whilst a localised approach facilitated the delivery of personalised, context- sensitive interventions, some prospective providers were concerned about the financial viability of operating the programme as any contract, regardless of size, has set-up and management costs. The lots varied in size and the smallest lots were most affected by concerns regarding financial viability.

Partnerships worked best when providers invested in relationship-building on an ongoing basis. For instance, some providers joined local partnership structures to maintain their relationship with local groups. Attendance at food banks, job clubs, and other community events allowed providers to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones. However, new providers who took charge of three lots in the second year of programme delivery, in place of previous contractors, found it more difficult and time-consuming to forge new partnerships.

The onset of the pandemic disrupted partnership working, testing their resilience. Restrictions on face-to-face interaction therefore diminished possibilities for collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Moreover, since shared facilities like community centres closed, providers could not co-locate activities with their partners. Partnerships were most resilient in lots where providers maintained contact with partners, despite the challenges posed by lockdowns.


Physical presence in the community was critical for providers to promote their services to potential participants and to establish partnerships with community stakeholders. Presence at community events and other local gathering areas created networking opportunities, which in turn facilitated the recruitment of participants. The importance of physical presence to programme engagement was apparent during the pandemic when the number of new enrolments declined amongst individuals in the Hardest to Help cohort, for whom face-to-face outreach was the most effective way of engagement.

Providers used various ways to promote the programme, including leaflets, promotional events, Jobcentre Plus referrals, referrals from other organisations, and word of mouth. The pandemic led to increased use of social media. Social media recruits tended to have higher levels of skill, digital literacy and Internet connectivity.

Whilst providers were generally successful in marketing to and engaging with individuals out of work, they encountered more difficulties reaching employed individuals. These difficulties related to providers’ generally limited prior experience in providing in-work support and inconsistent contact with individuals who were currently employed. This could be attributed to traditional employment support not giving much attention to in-work progression, resulting in practitioners’ limited experience in the area. Structural impediments, such as the prevalence of zero-hour contracts and jobs with little opportunity for progression, also hampered the provision of in-work support.

The modest results could also be attributed to the definition of in-work progression used by Connecting Communities. The programme defined in-work progression as at least a 10% increase in wages. Whilst this is easily measurable, it does not account for lateral career movements that improve future progression prospects. With an expanded definition, in-work progression outcomes might have been more positive.

Providers identified and recorded participants’ barriers to employment. The most prominent barriers were the need for employability support, low confidence and motivation for work, and lack of skills or qualifications. Personal circumstances, such as a health condition or disability, childcare responsibilities, financial debt, and access to transport were also common constraints to work. During the pandemic, limited access to the Internet became an increasingly important barrier for certain populations.

Given participants’ varying support needs, individual action plans indicated different forms of support. This individualisation generated trust between provider and participants, which in turn encouraged positive behaviour change and self-efficacy with regards to work. The provision of volunteering opportunities to jobseekers was especially appreciated by participants. Participants reported increased levels of confidence, self-efficacy, and work- related skills following participation in volunteering schemes.

Amidst the pandemic, support moved online. Participants appreciated how the shift towards virtual media allowed for continued support, but most still expressed a preference for face-to-face delivery. According to participants, face-to-face delivery made it easier to establish trust and rapport with their assigned advisor.

Strong employer engagement was important to the success of Connecting Communities. Approaches taken by providers to engage with employers included: (a) leveraging links from other contacts; (b) attending job fairs; (c) building close relationships with local employers; (d) searching online for job vacancies; (e) cold-calling employers; (f) reverse marketing; and (g) working with employment agencies.


Place-based approaches to employment support provision are an effective means to address the spatial complexity and specificity of worklessness and socioeconomic disadvantage. The localised approach allowed WMCA to commission different organisations across lots. Commissioning different organisations allowed them to deliver context-sensitive interventions, minimise risk, and adapt as needed. However, timescales reduced the potential for co-designing the programme with the communities themselves. As such, commissioning processes in future place-based programmes could allow more time for providers to build partnerships and involve community stakeholders.

Difficulties in recruiting staff, sourcing venues for delivery, and establishing community partnerships stalled mobilisation, and therefore, future programmes should allow providers more time to develop capacity and acknowledge the amount of time needed for place-based programmes to become fully operational.

Despite difficulties in mobilising, however, Connecting Communities nonetheless succeeded in engaging a diverse cohort. This is in large part due to the use of different means of promoting the programme, in response to differing behavioural patterns across target groups. The ethos of individualisation was also reflected in support provision, with action plans indicating different forms of support, in accordance with the wide variety of support needs expressed by participants. This ethos was a core strength and could only benefit future place-based employment support programmes.

Continued investment in partnerships was a contributor to programme success. For example, providers in East Birmingham worked collectively across lots. The social capital resulting from continuous partnership-building had proven especially useful amidst the pandemic, during which strong partnerships allowed providers to solicit resources from partners as caseloads moved online.

More participants identified the need for work experience than implemented this action. This is an improvement area that could be addressed by stronger employer engagement. Place-based employment support programmes might benefit from a programme-wide strategy for sourcing vacancies and placements, jointly developed with local employers. Limited in-work progression was another important challenge that could be addressed, at least to some extent, through employer engagement. Since the prevalence of jobs with little progression opportunity largely contributed to limited career progression, engaging employers to alleviate these structural hindrances would be beneficial.

Regression analysis highlighted groups that were less likely, when other characteristics were controlled for, to be supported into work. This included participants with a health condition or disability. As found with other employment support programmes, participants in this group were less likely to secure a job outcome. 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. While the service was personalised, it might not have been sufficient alone to overcome structural barriers to work among specific groups.

Providers responded flexibly to the pandemic, adopting online means of support during lockdown. However, whilst participants appreciated the continuity of support through online provision, the fact that most expressed their preference for face-to-face delivery suggests that in-person support will continue to be the primary mode of employment support moving forward. The flexibility of the WMCA during the pandemic, as shown by adjustments in target outcomes and modes of payment, contributed to programme success.

The programme illustrates the potential of place-based employment support programmes in reaching and serving populations who are furthest from the labour market. Its localised, personalised, and context-sensitive support should inspire the adoption of a similar ethos in future place-based employment support programmes.



Partnerships, governance, and responsiveness

  • 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, including residents’ groups, local councillors and faith organisations. 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. This facilitates building social capital between providers and local community organisations, and opportune encounters with participants.

  • Future programmes should consider how to remunerate the contributions of community partners. The resources of community partners were benefited from unfunded in Connecting Communities.

  • Local governance structures should promote knowledge-sharing between providers, including through regular meetings where experiences and practice can be shared both formally and informally, 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 an understanding of community needs.

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

Promotion and marketing
  • 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. 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 the 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.

Pre-employment support
  • Smaller caseload sizes allow for greater levels of individualised support, and therefore, providers should strive to designate a reasonable number of customers per advisor. 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 among 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.

  • 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.

In-work support
  • Many providers had limited experience of 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.

  • 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 the 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.