Jobactive and job service providers are unfit for purpose

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There is a sense of liminality pushing down on the shoulders of many Australians regarding their financial security. It is like waiting in a dark room, no windows, no doors, no way of telling the time or contacting the outside world. You want to simultaneously sit in the middle of the room and wait, but also scream and bang on the walls — you know neither will help.

Centrelink sign (TKKurikawa/Depositphotos)

The Government’s — now obselete — staged rollback of the JobKeeper payment and discussion of other associated stimulus plans has dominated the media, eclipsing the still precarious fates of the 1 million Australians reported to be unemployed. Beyond the announcement of the corona supplement falling from $550 to $250 a fortnight in September, and the reintroduction of asset testing, there has been little in the way of a roadmap for our nation’s unemployed in a landscape where job seekers outnumber jobs 13:1. This bumbling gap is most obvious in the continual delay in reintroducing mutual obligations (MOs), as its unclear messaging, and generally sporadic communication has left many recipients unsure of their future. 

For those fortunate enough to have never encountered them — mutual obligations are a series of tasks one is expected to complete while on the Jobseeker payment. These tasks are to be administered by and reported to your assigned Job Services Provider (JSP) and may vary depending on an individual’s circumstance or stream. Often these involve applying for a set amount of jobs a month, attending appointments, and when required, classes and courses in the hope that these activities will either increase your general employability or directly land you a job.

But therein lies the issue — applying for 20 jobs a month does nothing when there are no jobs. Being the most qualified candidate means nothing if the pool is overflowing. The current Jobactive scheme in its existing state is rife with flaws, which will only be exacerbated in the coming months as it is ill-prepared to face the influx of job seekers soon to be funnelled into its program.

The suspension of MOs in the first place may be seen as an admission that they’re not required as part of an employment services system. Despite ‘fears’ that a liveable welfare payment without these conditions will discourage job searches, employers are still being inundated with applications.

 

'The report ultimately found that the current Jobactive program was failing multiple constituent groups such as people with a disability, those with tertiary qualifications, women, and the over 50. Ironically, these groups have been hit the hardest by the pandemic’s effect on the job market, and therefore are more likely to be entering this system.'

 

‘The framing of statements put out by the department website [Services Australia] suggests there are requirements, but all of those statements also say there will be no penalty for not doing anything. And therefore, the only way we can interoperate that is that the Minister is feeling compelled to help job agencies out because they don’t want to lose money, but also they know that job agencies cannot handle capacity,' states Australian Unemployed Workers Union representative Kristin O’Connell, who has been on the front-line pressuring the government for clarity on these issues for their members. It seems the suspension of MOs are the thin line preventing a collapse of the program in the current job market, suggesting Jobactive is an inherently flawed system.

Australia was one of the first countries to contract out employment services under Howard’s 1998 Job Network program, and at the time of the Senate’s Education and Employment References Committee report on Jobactive (Feb 2019), Australia is the only OECD country to outsource the entire delivery of its publicly funded employment services. This outsourced model relies heavily on paid incentives to encourage job agencies to place job seekers into work, however, there is little structure to ensure this work is meaningful, long-term, or aligns to a job seekers’ circumstances. In fact, the current Jobactive system incentivises putting people into insecure work so they can be rerouted back into the system.

O'Connell points to stories shared through the AUWU’s inundated personal advocacy line, of job seekers being bullied by their JSP, or pushed into training roles in which they are paid at a lower rate and let go at the end of the term only to be replaced with another job seeker. ‘…Either my employer abused me, it was an unsafe workplace and I got hurt, then I got workers comp, and now I’m on the disability support pension,' O'Connell describes. 'But these are the kind of stories we hear from people who have been placed in work, and they’re the supposed success stories.’ 

It feels these sorts of things shouldn’t happen, you wouldn’t be mistaken if you were to feel sceptical and ask, ‘But aren’t these agencies vetted, reviewed? They wouldn’t have won the tender if they couldn’t prove themselves.’ Although NSW Government tenders have moved towards favouring ‘outcome-based budgeting’ in an attempt to encourage a ‘whole of person care’ model, this ultimately is very difficult to support and prove — long term social impact reporting technology is very expensive and must be backed up through strong organisational processes and governance. In my experience in this area, few organisations have the ability and capacity to afford and maintain these systems.

This, however, isn’t exactly an issue in the current Jobactive scheme, as JSP’s have a few general milestones, but the methodology is ultimately up to them. In theory, this is to keep processes agile, but makes it incredibly hard to report consistently and compare effectiveness accurately. The current request for tender for Employment Services (due to expire this year) states, ‘Employment Providers will not be bound by a list of prescribed meetings or activities. Instead, they are expected to use a wide range of new approaches to meet the needs of Employers and Job Seekers…’

Reporting, in general, has few points of standardisation. During my own time working with the sector I was made aware it was possible for different JSPs to register an individual with them at different stages of interaction, i.e. some immediately and others after an initial interview. This may seem like a small difference in process, but it can greatly affect a job agencies’ final conversion rates, which in turn affects their government contracts and funding, particularly as the performance of providers is largely assessed by a relative comparison of provider performance.

The Senate’s Education and Employment References Committee’s report, Jobactive: failing those it is intended to serve, suggested this ‘agility’ was not utilised. Despite the streaming process, Jobactive has a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to assisting participants. The report ultimately found that the current Jobactive program was failing multiple constituent groups such as people with a disability, those with tertiary qualifications, women, and the over 50.

Ironically, these groups have been hit the hardest by the pandemic’s effect on the job market, and therefore are more likely to be entering this system. These findings align with the experience of the AUWU — who state to have never seen any evidence that Jobactive is useful for anyone; regardless of their age, their employment situation or their education.

As of writing, no level of government has announced an amendment to the services, their responsibilities, or requirements in response to the current employment crisis beyond the MO suspension, the length of which and timeline has continued to remain unclear. I am not including JobTrainer in this assessment as at this stage it seems it will be administered through training organisations and therefore the relationship between JSPs and these organisations is yet to be made clear.

On August 4th it was announced that job seekers are now only required to accept ‘suitable work’, but it seems even this definition has yet to be updated to address what suitable work is in our current society. The ability to work from home for those at risk or in proximity to those who are and travel restrictions as just a few examples. ‘They haven’t said there’s going to be a change in what suitable work means at this stage it’s one of the things we are waiting on for clarification,’ says O’Connell. ‘We are seeking to understand in more detail whether they will be applying the existing test for suitable work.’

We can only assume this is one of the benefits of a wholly outsourced model — the government doesn’t have to sort this one, it is up to JSPs out of the goodness of their own heart or operational capacity to come up with a plan.

 

'This isn’t just an opportunity to fix some bugs; this is a wakeup call to overhaul the system...'

 

It seems that once MOs fully return almost 1 million Aussies will be pushed into a system that will use them as cash cows in a best-case scenario or implode under the worst. 

So, how do we move forward and protect our vulnerable citizens? Well, in response to the 2019 Senate report a New Employment Services Model has been designed, claiming to address many of the report’s concerns and recommendations. Currently, this system is being trialled in South Australia’s Adelaide South and the Northern Central Coast of New South Wales. However, little information is available regarding the new initiative’s success or lack thereof. The Government is aiming to roll-out the new program in 2022, but the current situation may prompt a sooner transition.

I for one am wary — ultimately the new program is not separate from the existing problems of the current Jobactive scheme and employment services as a whole.  An outsourced and private business model where JSP’s benefit from the illusion of work placement is never going to favour a job seeker’s humanity and well-being.

If the government wants to truly shift social services to a whole of person care model as they have flagged, then they need to take the program out of the hands of private companies. Current incentive schemes do not prioritise the job seeker’s wellbeing or long-term employment goals, and this is exacerbated when nestled in a for-profit business model.

Any future program must have transparent reporting with consistent and standardised methodology, which seeks to provide individuals with meaningful employment, intregral to its development and implementation. It would also benefit from instituting ways to easily report misconduct that doesn’t make job seekers feel like their payment will be threatened, and providing the ability to refuse work regardless of ‘suitability’, as an individual is ultimately the best judge of their own situation.

And importantly, it would need to have the general understanding that there are currently not enough jobs and lowering the rate/forcing individuals into searching for work will not change that; it will only make lives of vulnerable Australian’s harder.

We hear over and over again that Australia is in a position to change its social services for the better as the ongoing pandemic continues to highlight flaws across the sector and beyond. This isn’t just an opportunity to fix some bugs; this is a wakeup call to overhaul the system or risk the entrapment of a million Aussies within a loop of insecure work and poverty.

 

 


Izabella is a Sydney based writer, her work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Overland, ARNA and Yemaya. She is also one of the founding members of the Elpis Network policy advocacy group.

Main image: Centrelink sign (TKKurikawa/Depositphotos)

Topic tags: Izabella Antoniou, Jobactive, Jobseeker, mutual obligations, COVID-19

 

 

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Existing comments

An excellent analysis of the failure of unemployment public policy and administration. COVID-19 has exposed this government failure and demands a total rethink for the future administration of a scheme that is critical to a good society. As Izabella Antoniou observes, "this is a wakeup call to overhaul the system or risk the entrapment of a million Aussies within a loop of insecure work and poverty."
Peter Johnstone | 03 September 2020


The privatization of the former Commonwealth Employment Service by John Howard was a flawed concept from the start. The profit motive, based on skimming more tax payers' money is as flawed a concept as the now horribly exposed 'for profit' model for the COVID-19 plagued Retirement Villages which also profit from government handouts. Privatization simply fails the 'pub test'.
Gavin O'Brien | 03 September 2020


Thanks for this piece, Izabella. The deficiencies you have pointed out apply to almost all outsourced providers - little accountability and oversight regarding what is actually being delivered by the providers, whether it be in aged care, disability, out-of-home-care, job-seekers et al. The public-private partnership model (Or the commissioning model as it's sometimes called) needs to be subjected to some deep scrutiny. But who will do it? Governments benefit from handing over their responsibility and the private sector rubs their hands together with glee at scoring a government tender because they can get away with shoddy practices while making a load of money.
Anne Marie | 03 September 2020


The answer to the question, 'how will we replace the current system?' is answered by a simpler structure; local government should be given the responsibility for helping people find employment. The reasons for this are: (1) local authorities in Australia know their areas, needs and people better than urban 'sales-people' posing as job marketers; and (2) job offers are more likely to be found when the 'bait' is removed from the interaction between job seeker and job provider. Now is the time to cast aside Howard's folly and bring in a system that respects people's abilities, instead of focusing on the auction system we now have.
john willis | 03 September 2020


An excellent article. I agree with Gavin O'Brien that the demise of the Commonwealth Employment Service was a disaster. Its recreation as a nationwide entity is a must. We need to look at the bigger picture. Now.
Edward Fido | 04 September 2020


Excellent observations and the article is well presented. The JSP network is a bit like the model used for child care; it makes use of consumers to generate employment. Kids are wrested from mothers (and fathers) into child care to create jobs for carers; similarly, the plethora of private JSPs creates "jobs" juggling the unemployed within the archaic Jobactive framework, requiring monthly accounting/auditing of job searches. It begs the question: why would the government continue to pay the JSPs for services while they're effectively closed for business?
ray | 04 September 2020


A very thought provoking article that responds to a real need in our society-effective assistance to those seeking employment. I believe that John's suggestion of transferring the current service to Local Government Authorities is worthy of real consideration.
Kevin Pattison | 04 September 2020


Sadly this is typical of a neoliberal government, whose main goal is to foist punitive measures on the unemployed without providing real solutions. Recall the "lifters and leaners" rhetoric, which is laughable considering the biggest "leaners" are corporations and property investors receiving massive tax breaks.
Linda Nevell | 04 September 2020


I didn't realise when in this system how it is designed to be for profit for the provide providers. Living on poverty level income as I finished my degree, I was on the brink of suicide and intense panic attacks after someone from one of these agencies kept changing my appointment days without notice, only for a text message to come through when I was in the waiting room. I finally realised from a person in the community that also has bipolar that Services Australia had entered me as 'full time looking for work capacity' when I was in a manic episode under the care of Headspace. I honestly didn't realise why it was so difficult to navigate their system until I went into another agency in tears and they explain it to me that I didn't even have it registered as 'limited work capacity.' I was transferred to another agency where the JSP bullied me on the phone about seeing a doctor when I was in the waiting room. She sent me to a centrelink office is far out Melbourne which took 4 hours on public transport to get to. Then they 'assessed' me and realised they had made a mistake. I am so sick of these stupid agencies seeing me as a number it makes people suicidal living in poverty when they have mental health issues.
Anon | 05 September 2020


"They wouldn’t have won the tender if they couldn’t prove themselves.’ Typical drivel trotted out when government and businesses are excusing themselves especially when we all know that this is another rort to put public money into certain private hands without doing anything useful. The old CES was far better and cheaper than this collection of charlatans. The CES was an intermediary between people and employers and also had industry connections and knowledge leading to far more efficient processes and outcomes. They helped me a lot some decades ago whereas 10 years ago I had to deal with one of these idiot providers wh did nothing other than rewrite my resume into a childish 10 point format so that he could understand it (20 years worth of high level technical work that a lay person would not be expected to understand)
Steve | 05 September 2020


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