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‘Working Capital’: the challenge of evidencing ‘what works’ in central London

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As an economic outlier on almost every indicator, and home to a hugely complex institutional landscape, the heart of London presents distinct opportunities and challenges for economic development and public service reform – and for seeking to understand ‘what works’.

Employment support for the hardest to help is a critical area of interest for London, in ensuring that the economic opportunities of the capital are as widely accessible as possible – and also an area where there are significant gaps in the evidence base. As part of the London Growth Deal, Central London Forward (the partnership of the eight central London boroughs) is piloting a radical new approach to employment support. ‘Working Capital’, due to begin delivery later this year and run for up to five years, will see nearly 4,000 long-term unemployed residents with health conditions supported to move closer to employment, funded via the European Social Fund. Participants, who will be Employment Support Allowance claimants who have left the national Work Programme without securing work, will receive dedicated help from multi-skilled case workers, embedded within local multi-agency teams. These case workers will work closely with clients to understand the barriers they are facing and work with them to develop an action plan for gaining and sustaining employment, bringing together other local services to provide the specialist support they need.

Between the participating boroughs and wider partners, both within London and nationally, there is a wealth of experience of employment programmes which have provided learning to inform the co-design of Working Capital. As well as learning from the experience and performance of nationally commissioned schemes including the Work Programme, key reference points have included the local experience of delivering integrated, employment-focused support for Londoners affected by the benefit cap; the development of integrated family recovery services and experience of the Troubled Families scheme; Greater Manchester’s ‘Working Well’ pilot; and the use of the internationally accredited Individual Placement and Support (IPS) model to support people with mental health conditions into employment, as part of a holistic programme integrating employment support with clinical interventions.

However, when considering the potential for expanding localised, multi-agency approaches across the mainstream of public services, there remains a huge need for a compelling evidence base. An integral objective of the Central London pilot is to deliver a robust evaluation, producing a clear counterfactual to demonstrate the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the approach through a systematic, rigorous approach to comparing groups of participants in real time, rather than via proxy methods such as propensity score matching. As part of the Local Growth Deal with Government, a set of milestones have been agreed whereby positive evaluation results will be used to unlock further local integration of employment support services in the capital.

The What Works Centre has been involved in developing our thinking on this from an early stage, and CLF has benefited hugely from the expert external challenge the Centre has provided. An important challenge has been to ensure that the core evidence on the effective local delivery of employment-related outcomes is properly captured whilst also seeking an ambitious approach to quantifying and attributing wider outcomes, such as shifts in demand for health or social services linked to the Working Capital service. This has involved some robust debates around how we define success.

Another critical aspect of the work will be ensuring that the evaluation approach is flexible enough to cope with the shifting conditions over the pilot period. The backdrop to the pilot will be affected hugely by the roll out of Universal Credit, the recommissioning of employment support services to replace the Work Programme, and the potential for continued changes to social security likely to affect central London more than anywhere else, to name but a few. It will be crucial that the evaluation can account for such developments, while returning credible results capable of informing London-wide and national policy formulation and commissioning.

The involvement of the What Works Centre has been invaluable in helping us to work through the operational issues arising from these challenges and others – but has also underlined the strategic importance of proper evaluation to London’s ambitions. We look forward to continuing to work with the Centre to ensure that Working Capital delivers not only better support and more job outcomes for participating Londoners, but also the evidence to help shape future approaches on a larger scale.

Majeed Neky is a member of the What Works Centre’s User Panel and works on devolution and growth issues for Central London Forward, on secondment from his substantive role as Principal Policy Officer at Westminster City Council.