Innovation in employment support: is it just code for saving money? / by Mary Jane Edwards


Earlier this year, in partnership with Nesta and The Centre for Economics and Social Inclusion, we held a collaborative roundtable event exploring existing and emerging innovation supporting those out of work. We invited experts in commissioning, managing, delivering and evaluating employment support provisions to identify the most promising areas for innovations, as well as the barriers that prevent ideas from being tested or scaled.

In this post we’ve shared some of the key points from the session that helped frame the opportunities to develop, and test better models, which deliver better outcomes.

Defining innovation

Early on in the process several participants rightly challenged if there was any ‘real’ innovation occurring at all in employment support. Innovation was often used to describe incremental and procedural changes to existing models and well-established processes, rather than more radical reform. It was felt in the majority of cases, lowering costs and maximising efficiencies rather than producing better outcomes largely drive innovation in this context. Participants also suggested that the current commissioning structures did not incentivise a step-change in thinking or approach, and that commissioners should understand that innovation doesn’t necessarily mean something new.

We were however, encouraged by a number of emerging areas of innovative practice at critical points in the process of supporting someone from unemployment to employment. You can read more about the themes we identified prior to the event here.

Over the course of the event, these themes were further interrogated to include new areas of interest and questions as set out below.

Testing ‘what works’

There was a clear appetite from participants for developing a better understanding of the early indicators of the probability of finding, sustaining and progressing in work. Whilst there are legitimate reasons for the array of different methods utilised to collect evidence there was much questioning as to what extent these measures relate to impact. For example, can they tell us much about the likelihood of an individual finding work and what can they do to help change this prediction?

For this type of approach better tools and processes are required which improve segmentation but also provide more information about the underlying problems that act as a barrier to finding work. Furthermore, it was questioned why, aside from cost, were randomised control trials (RCTs) rarely invested in so standards of evidence could be created which build confidence across the sector. 

Distance travelled and longer-term outcomes

Similarly, more nuanced measurements for ‘distance travelled’ (a person’s progress from unemployment towards employment) would be beneficial in a sector ruled by binaries e.g. in/out of work. It was understood that initial engagement can be a fundamental part of an individual’s journey – long before they are anywhere near a job outcome. However, it was also acknowledged that such systems can act as disincentives for people to be supported into long-term sustainable work.

This thinking extended into in-work support, and the value of longer-term measurements, i.e. is it sustainable, fulfilling, well-paid, secure, are there opportunities for in-work progress and development? There was much interest in innovation and learning around longer-term outcomes that take a more holistic view of progression and earnings, for example Participle’s work around Relational Welfare. It was also considered essential to find a way of addressing everyone in the system, including those who do not secure work post mandatory programmes.  


The discussion around evidence was largely underpinned by data. Recognising that whilst there is a significant amount of data collected, there are no shared systems for analysis or a unified outcomes framework. Successful innovation often relies on information and data sharing to identify promising models, but also to understand performance variation and avoid possible replication of unsuccessful schemes or initiatives. Would providers be more willing to share data publicly if there was greater flexibility and acceptance of failure in contracting? Also, how can a focus on the individual be maintained while making sure it can be modelled, measured, expanded, built upon?

Risk and failure (within commissioning structures)

It is evident that funding for risk and innovation is somewhat scarce in welfare to work. Providers don’t have the resources to risk failure and so have little incentive to innovate. In order to embrace innovation funders, commissioners and delivery organisations need to be comfortable with the down side of innovation and make room for trial and error in programme design. Could there be ring-fenced funds in contracts or dedicated centres for work that support experimentation and learning? Similarly, the specifications of the current commissioning structures and processes should work towards developing a more robust framework for experimentation.

User-led service design  

In scanning the current practice in employment support there was a dearth of approaches akin to design thinking and service user-led design. This arose early on in discussions in relation to the current, binary employment support system that creates a tension in service user power, which is more pronounced than in other services such as health or education.

Given the growing demand for more individual and traditional customer-orientated services, user-led design was considered to be a helpful lens to shift motivation to innovate from improving productivity of services to well-articulated customer need and customer choice. However, a counter point was outlined in that it can be difficult to filter down user-led service design, policy or legislation when it is passed on to delivery managers who generate guidance templates without having been fully involved in generating the evidence – thus making it difficult to test policy or design on a large scale, with varying (often disappointing) results.


At the demand side of the market there was recognition that whilst employers play a vital role they are not always actively engaged in designing employment support provisions. There were relatively few employer-led models for those farthest from the labour market, and limited examples of joined up engagement across the sector.


Whilst data collection, analysis and sharing were considered to be integral to furthering the innovation agenda, there was limited reference to the potential of digital technology more broadly. Digital products, platforms and services are currently utilised in back end systems, but how can they add value in terms of user experience, or be embedded within operations, engagement and sector wide systems?

Next steps

It is always difficult to promote innovation as a priority in any area of policy or practice, which is as complex and diverse as employment support. What was however demonstrated even at this initial gathering is the growing desire to stimulate new networks and frameworks for such exploration – and for that exploration to go beyond ‘business as usual’ and only as a measure for ‘saving money.’

Given the diversity and multiplicity of the sector, there’s inevitably a big question around coordination and the roles different actors should play, which challenges the perceived incumbency of large-scale government initiatives and silo working across the sector as a whole. With the drive for more integrated public services and devolution across the country it is imperative that networks of providers exist, and more modular design ensures everyone can do what they do best.

We hope to stimulate new partnerships and activity in this field and further explore:

  • The role of data collection and analysis in employment support services to both act as a predictor for finding work and sustaining and progressing in work, but also to demystify key milestones pre-job outcome.
  • The needs of employers in the design and delivery of employment support programmes.

If any of the areas above are of interest to you, please do get in touch with Mary Jane Edwards