Catch 22 with British and EU bureaucracy

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My blog-silence has been broken by my frustration at some very silly and wasteful EU / British rules that cost us all a lot of money and bring negligible benefit. Let me explain. Those who know of my company, MyWorkSearch, will be aware that we have an online portal that provides a wealth of resources to assist individuals on their job-search journey. We have recently added content and functionality so we can deliver employability courses that are funded by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and European Social Fund (ESF). The payment for an employability course is not that much, however, a technology delivery model makes it viable. To be entitled to the funded course Paperworka person must be unemployed and eligible for benefits in the UK.

Our funding comes via a contract holder, known as a Prime. Our Prime is subject to strict audit rules and should any process or paperwork be incorrect can be required to repay monies they have received. This can be several years down the line and in a low margin sector risk the on-going viability of the Prime. Clearly this creates a risk-averse approach.

So far I am sure that all who read this are nodding their heads and thinking that this is as it should be. Unfortunately, what it has created is a monster of bureaucracy that prevents help being provided to people who need it and adds overheads to providers and government that ultimately we all end up paying for. Meanwhile, the system appears to be designed in a way that stops intelligent change taking place.

The latest example we have run into is with regards to eligibility. In order to provide a short (20 – 30 training hours) employability training course we need to see a copy of a person’s passport or birth certificate. This presents us with two problems. The first is that many people, especially those who find themselves in need of these funded employability courses, don’t have a passport and have long since lost their birth certificate. Getting copies requires time and money. The second is that an employability course can be effectively delivered online, however, demonstrating eligibility and getting a learner signature requires face to face interactions and thus limits who can be assisted and where they are located.

If employability courses don’t make a difference they should not be funded at all. If they are helpful there should not be barriers that prevent their swift provision. What is the point of restricting or delaying assistance that gets people from costly benefits recipients to contributing taxpayers? We have a cumbersome system designed to prevent fraud without anyone stopping to consider how many people are really likely to masquerade as unemployed and entitled to benefits in order to get a free employability course. Nor do they appear to have considered the relative costs of the occasional eligibility mistake versus the bureaucracy overhead that every party bears for every assistance recipient.

Notwithstanding that self-certification would probably be fine, there is a middle-ground solution. Only an eligible person can claim unemployment benefits and Jobcentre Plus could readily issue a confirmation that the checks have been undertaken. Indeed they already have a process for this. The challenge is that the SFA and ESF won’t categorically confirm that a Jobcentre Plus document is sufficient proof. A Prime naturally needs to avoid the risk of clawback so in the absence of a clear SFA statement it insists that its supply chain dots every i and crosses every t.

I regularly speak to other small providers. We all have our examples of how the system has been daftly designed. But what truly adds insult to injury is our inability to get this changed. The SFA only deal with the Primes and smaller providers who are at the mercy of the rules have no route to dialogue or mechanism to obtain clarification. The Primes do not wish to jeopardise their contracts and have to conform to a system where they are informed of the rules they must follow and know that any mistakes can prove very costly. Meanwhile, now that much of the SFA’s funding is mixed with EU monies, there is always the ultimate joker card that trumps all arguments. Brussels makes the rules and we have no choice but to enforce them.

Entrepreneurs tend to be passionate about what their business does and also adept at finding solutions to problems. I really value that our service helps people find employment. We change for the better the lives of many people. I am so frustrated that I work in a system that is so poorly implemented and where there is no route to effect change. I could make it my mission to expose ineptitude and obsessively campaign for improvement. However, doing so would no doubt commercially hurt my business and take time I don’t have. So I just grit my teeth and get on with it, observing considerable waste at a time when we are all told that government expenditure must be cut. How very sad that I and so many others are put in this position. It does not make me proud to be British or European.

Pragmatic pulling

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When was the last time you played a computer game? Not some simple exercise on your mobile phone. I mean a complicated multi-player game with numerous controls, options and challenges. Learning how to master the game is hard. There is a lot to learn, from controller/keyboard commands to gameplay options and rules. And yet millions of people do this. Many of whom fail to get formal qualifications or are cajoled and encouraged in order to achieve them. So it is not a question of being unable to learn. It appears to be more about motivation to learn.

What also strikes me is the effort and research that goes into learning how to play a game well. Playing a video gameThe game may arrive with a booklet and have training segments. However the enthusiastic gamer will google for guidance, read forums and find videos showing other players’ tips and tricks. They will do all of this because they are motivated to succeed and know that learning this information is key to their gaming success.

I have spent considerable time in recent months visiting establishments that provide employability assistance to job-seekers. At the end of the course an assessor verifies that the learner has indeed understood what an employer is looking for and what s/he personally needs to do in order to secure and keep a job. What has struck me is how much cost goes into cajoling individuals through that relatively short learning journey and assessment. Pushing this information to learners is an expensive process. It all costs money – from learner recruitment to physical infrastructure to tutor and all the associated delivery resources. Currently the taxpayer, via the Skills Funding Agency, picks up the multi-billion pound bill for this.

So here’s a thought. What if a reasonable proportion of learners could be encouraged to self-learn? They could use technology to pull the learning they need and, when ready, complete the required assessment process. The main barrier is motivation. The person who is willing to invest time and effort mastering a game cannot be bothered to do this when it comes to what s/he perceives as someone else’s course and qualification. In an ideal world people would see how learning this information benefits them and would find the internal motivation to pursue the knowledge. However in the real world it does not happen and we invest a fortune in pushing education.

So what would happen if we made learning resources available online and paid people to achieve qualifications? I imagine that a payment of twenty five percent of the cost of pushing training would be sufficient to motivate many learners.  If half our students could self-learn one third of their training we would save a fortune in delivery costs. Meanwhile training provision could be focused on the harder to help groups that are not able to self-learn.

I can see how this would be politically sensitive. After all, why should ‘we’ bribe people to learn something that will benefit them? The answer in these straitened times could be that it is a pragmatic solution that could save a fortune. If you are not sure it is feasible, invest in a computer game and see how long it takes you to master the game-play!