Mandatory work: if we believe in evidence-based policy it’s probably best to pay attention to the evidence

by Stephen Tall on June 16, 2012

Four months ago, when the political row over ‘workfare’ was at its peak, I wrote here on LibDemVoice that liberals needed to progress the debate beyond ‘the simple and simplistic ‘left/right’ attitudes currently on display, and start grappling with how best we can empower the individual to make the best of their own lives — including, and especially, those who appear to have settled for a life on benefits, and reject all other offers of help.’

Avoiding dogma, embracing evidence

Key to this, I suggested, would be avoiding the dogmatic approaches of the Tories — who appear to believe that every single long-term unemployed is a feckless, work-shy benefit dependent who just needs to jolly well pull their socks up — and of Labour — who seem to think every single private enterprise is on a ruthless mission to exploit the most vulnerable in society. Instead we should root our liberal approach in evidence:

To be clear, I’m not advocating the ‘workfare’ programme in its current form. Nor am I saying that liberals should be supporting wholesale mandatory ‘workfare’ programmes. The evidence to date is far too weak for us cheerfully to approve compulsion of citizens to take on unpaid work ‘for their own good’. But I would not be against pilot programmes to test and properly evaluate different initiatives, including those which do require mandatory, time-limited work placements for those whose CVs otherwise makes them unemployable. We would then have a much better idea of what is most likely to work.

To its credit, the Department for Work & Pensions commissioned — and published — an independent study of its mandatory work activity (MWA) programme this week. Unfortunately for the Government the study contained unhelpful news:

The government’s peer-reviewed study concluded that being referred by jobcentre managers to mandatory unpaid work for 30 hours a week was good at pushing people off jobseeker’s allowance in the short term. However, over a three to five-month period, those who did not eventually start mandatory work were more likely to return to out-of-work benefits when compared with those who had never been referred in the first place.

Overall, out of those being referred, there was no positive or negative effect on benefit claims between the different groups which were compared. DWP researchers said this total of people returning to benefits included a 3% increase in those claiming employment support allowance, a benefit given to those people suffering with serious health problems.

The study, which compared the outcomes of more than 3,000 MWA referrals and 125,000 non-referred jobseekers, also concluded that the scheme had zero effect in helping people get a job.

The study was led by the respected National Institute for Economic and Social Research, and reported in more detail on its director Jonathan Portes’s blog here.

Ignoring evidence, embracing dogma

And the Government’s response to this evidence? It’s expanded the scheme its own study concluded was failing to deliver any real benefit, with Conservative minister for employment Chris Grayling announcing:

I am also pleased to announce the Government has decided to expand the Mandatory Work Activity scheme. The expansion will enable Jobcentre Plus to make between 60,000 and 70,000 referrals to Mandatory Work Activity each year, based on the current experience of the scheme, at a cost of an additional £5 million per annum. This decision has been taken as the result of careful consideration of the positive impacts demonstrated within the Impact Assessment.

Liberals tend to be rational sceptics, who pride themselves on listening to, and respecting, evidence. It was, after all, that great liberal JM Keynes who famously declared, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Equally, there are some liberals who look a little askance at placing too much emphasis on evidence-based policy, regarding it suspiciously as an ideological cop-out which elevates faceless bureaucracy above genuine belief.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem in squaring this circle. Liberalism is about empowering the individual and confronting vested interests: that’s my philosophy. But there are of course a myriad of ways in which such a philosophy might be put into effect: evidence enables us to choose the most effective policy for realising that liberal philosophy.

Evidence and the ability to process it and adapt to its findings is what separates the ideological from the dogmatic politician. In politics, though, it’s so often easier to stick with dogmatism than to admit you’re wrong and try a new approach to achieve your desired outcome. The DWP, it seems, is more at home with dogmatism than evidence.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal CentreForum think-tank, and also writes at his own eponymous site, Stephen Tall.