I would like to start by stating I am writing this in my capacity as a student journalist, not as an A4e employee. I will not be using any data or information which is not readily available to Mr Joe Public because not only would this put me in breach of my contract, but it would mean me having an unfair advantage on any other reporter, and therefore in proving their reports wrong.
In previous articles I have written about A4e, I have spoken of my disgust at media behaviour towards the company. In that (how like many things), only the bad is reported, whilst the unmitigated good goes completely un-noticed.
As pointed out by Emma Harrison, (former Chairman and current shareholder of A4e) when interviewed on Channel 4 news last week, A4e were cleared on all counts of the fraud allegations posed at the start of this year. It is important to point out as the media surge around the company was at its pinnacle during the allegations, but once proved false, the storm subsided leaving A4e in a rather dull light.
This most recent attack was off the back of some questionably obtained stats which were out of date, out of context and most importantly, handled in a way which meant the following interpretations and conclusions drawn were all wrong. The main figure cited by the news channel was the 4 per cent. Channel 4 accused A4e of only getting 4 per cent of customers into work, when the target set by the Department of Working Pensions at a minimum is 5.5 per cent.
As previously stated, the stats used to achieve this 4 per cent figure were out of date and poorly interpreted, and moreover, should never have been accessed in the first place. The actual statistics will be produced next month, and it is from these that the media can create, fair and accurate reports upon the company’s performance.
Harrison challenged her interviewer asking if ‘he know how it works’ – an answer to which was not given, but I can assure you the non-response was akin to a resounding no. The Work Programme is a very complex organism, which differs per customer and per office therefore making analysis of performance a very trying task even for those within the company let alone journalists who dip in and out as they fancy. This ignorance was the main flaw within the Channel 4 report.
Journalists are not supposed to generalise, and that is all the report was. A sweeping generalisation of several unrelated points used to point towards a failing. Those points being the fraud allegations which no longer stand, and the actions of Harrison, someone who is now only a shareholder for the company, whose interests are far beyond financial as painted. Both points completely unrelated to performance, the main focus of this report.
When you break it down, the performance of an organisation is measured by the performance and attitude of its employees. A4e have a corporate morality which stretches further than most, it is called their DNA; the very cornerstones which make up the organisation, criteria which staff are hired on, and checked against on a monthly basis. These qualities are passion, friendly, caring, brave, trusted and driven. Staff must prove they are all of these things constantly, to ensure that they are in the business of helping people in the right way and to meet their targets at the same time.
This morality and ethical backbone is reflected in the thousands of positive customer experiences recorded daily in house. As stated by Harrison, over 2000 people have been helped to set up their own business (another figure overlooked) and many thousands have been helped back into education or training as part of a longer term plan to get them into sustainable employment.
The accusation that customers are only accorded a 15 minute slot is difficult to believe, as stated by Harrison, advisors are contractually obliged to see their customers for an absolute minimum of 1hr per month. All customers also attend training, job clubs and other activities such as meetings with the Money Advice Service or the National Careers service as arranged by A4e staff which ups their contact time and provides a wider spectrum of support to help prepare them for the world of work. Staff at all levels are entrenched within a system which their own job depends on which ensures that the customer journey is correctly orchestrated for the health and well-being of the customer as well as to optimise efficiency to reach business targets.
It is also important to remember, you can only help those acceptant of the help. There will always be the persistent non-attender, no matter what sanctions are in place.
At the end of the day, A4e is a business, and the same as if you were going to go into your local corner shop and complete a customer service survey, there are always going to be those who are not satisfied with the service, this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the service as a whole. This should be taken as constructive criticism and done so on a case by case basis, but the grumbles of two cannot be applied to A4e as a whole. That is simply illogical and quite frankly laughably bad and unbalanced journalism.
No one is going to be happy one hundred per cent of the time, it is not human nature. The majority, (and a strong majority at that) of A4e customers have a very positive experience. This can be ascertained by speaking to staff at the ground level, and a good spectrum of customers from different branches across the country. Each office varies in the challenges it faces, the specific barriers faced by customers and the specialist support they may need, therefore the Work Programme as a whole cannot be tarred with a singular brush.
And neither can A4e. As Emma Harrison also touched on, A4e is a massive international social enterprise company which works across multiple fields in addition to welfare and the Work Programme to help the most disadvantaged within society. This may be in the area of employment, education, training, justice, advice, support, finance and health. A4e has been working for over twenty years to help those in need of it most, and it seems wrong that all this good work is overlooked or worse, ignored, in favour of some duff figures which were not ready for publication in the first place.
Emma Harrison started A4e, and despite recent reports, there is no doubt that it is a company to be proud of that has helped many, and more importantly, will continue to do so.