Five lessons for public sector markets from Work for the Dole

By David Donaldson

November 20, 2015

The Work for the Dole program has seen financial, communication and planning challenges in its initial implementation, with providers and host organisations citing inadequate incentive payments and rushed introduction, according to an extensive report prepared for the Department of Employment.

It highlights some lessons that will echo with bureaucrats implementing other large market-based social programs: plan adequately to ensure a smooth transition, listen to stakeholders and make sure you get the incentives right.

1. Be clear about expectations

A major challenge reported by providers in implementing the new setup “was shifting the mindset of their staff so they understood that WfD [Work for the Dole] had become the priority activity for eligible job seekers”.

Differing interpretations among Jobs Services Australia providers of the requirements led to significant confusion among job seekers about their obligations, with many not realising participation was compulsory.

Resources available to providers are much more extensive now.

2. Give providers an opportunity to learn the ropes

If expectations were not clear, this was not helped by slow provision of supporting documentation to providers, which left very little time to comprehend and implement new rules in line with official timelines. One JSA provider told the reviewers:

“We got the guidelines at four o’clock on the Monday afternoon and they came into effect at nine o’clock on the Tuesday morning … Yes, literally, I got the email at four o’clock with the guidelines from my national manager. We have overnight to figure out how it was going to work, because as soon as the July 1 happened, the department were on our backs about making it work.”

3. Make it enticing to profit-driven entities

Incentive payments given to host organisations in exchange for accepting participant placements were seen by many as not being enough, with lots of organisations reporting that they were subsidising activities from other parts of their budget or were unable to take part because payments did not cover costs. Payment per place was highlighted as a significant problem, given that many individuals might cycle through one position, but that training and supplies may need to be provided anew to each. One provider said: “The host organisations have told us, $600 is nothing, it’s not worth me getting involved for that kind of money.”

The report argues there have been a range of problems with the payments:

  • Host organisations and providers alike felt that funding for individual activities was inadequate, particularly as it covered the place not the individual when in reality many individuals move through one place.
  • Funding for group activity places was felt by hosts to be more realistic, although many still reported subsidising the costs from other areas of the business, or said they were ‘out of pocket’. This was particularly the case where there were fixed costs such as White Cards, protective equipment and police checks needed, and again where there was a high turnover of participants.
  • There was reported variability in the payment amount providers offered to host organisations (sometimes for the same activity). Furthermore, some providers paid for fixed costs, but in other cases it was expected to be covered in the host organisation’s funding agreement.
  • Funding of places is likely to be more adequate if the churn of individuals through places is reduced.
  • There is some concern among providers about the increase in hours to up to 25 hours per week from July 1, 2015, and whether the increase in funding is sufficient to cover the additional supervision required.

In response to the findings of the report, payments were increased in July from $600 to $1000 per individual hosted place and from up to $1200 to up to $3500 per group based place.

One industry veteran suggested to The Mandarin that the funding is still insufficient for many organisations to place participants, adding that the compliance required of job seekers made many worried they would have their benefits cut off for missing a placement even to attend a job interview.

4. Watch for loopholes that undermine the market

The report notes often very short amounts of time between participants being notified of a placement and its commencement, and that regular attendance by job seekers for many host organisations sat at between 30 and 50%.

Many providers reported frustration that their reports of lack of participation to Centrelink would later be overturned when the agency spoke to the job seeker concerned, with some claiming participants were “gaming the system” and “knew what to say to Centrelink”.

5. What’s in a name?

Unsurprisingly, feedback suggested the name “Work for the Dole” had a negative stigma attached to it, with some providers avoiding mentioning the name of the program as much as possible to job seekers.

The demands on JSAs to find placements for job seekers as quickly as possible also made it difficult for them to find appropriate placements for some, given the time it can take to negotiate with both job seekers and host organisations. One provider said:

“If we take the time to actually tailor and match them into an activity that not only do they want to do but that is alongside their employment pathway plan we find engagement increases, they attend, the host is happy, all that sort of thing. So flipside of that though is that I do spend a lot of time doing that but it affects me placing people within that two week timeframe. I could get everybody placed with the hosts we have available if I really wanted to sit there and just say okay you’re going there, you’re going there … it’s not in the best interests of the job seeker I don’t believe either.”

A few host organisations complained they were given people who either could not do the job, or were completely disinterested in it: “As of late they’re almost, if they’re a warm body they will throw it to us.”

The time taken to apply for working with children and other types of approval sometimes significantly slowed down the process of placing individuals, leading to a proportion dropping out before starting as they became ineligible or found a job. As JSAs became more used to the process, they appear to have adjusted to starting the process of seeking approvals earlier, however.

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