When you arrive at the Harlesden branch of the UK unemployment office – called Jobs Centre Plus – the first thing you have to do is convince a giant of a man nicknamed Tiny that you have legitimate business there. When I arrived the first time, Tiny looked amused at the sight of my suit and tie, a little rumpled from my Boston flight that morning, and waved me in. A side-glance at the unbreakable glass partitions reserved for particularly “at risk” interactions between job advisors and job applicants further hinted at the grittiness of the place.
By the time I’d reached the top of the back stairway to our temporary office, I had learned that our mission was to help the local staff engage with the various Harlesden ethnic groups, particularly the Somali and Afro-Caribbean communities, including young black males who occasionally have, in the euphemistic language of the government, “law enforcement issues”. (I later learned that partnering with probation officers is a key part of the solution for job advisors assigned to those populations). I had touched tough neighborhoods before, particularly in our work with the French Post Office and with a difficult Boston neighborhood called Malden, but we’d never explicitly tried to engage those populations. I resisted the urge to jump on the first flight back to Boston.
The first sign of hope came from a conversation with my consulting colleagues who had already interviewed a lot of the Job Centre personnel the previous week. The team on the ground was young and enthusiastic. There was a twinkle in their eyes, a “what do we do now, chief” look that shamed me into rising out of my jet lag. Some advisors had told them about communities they wanted to engage. All we had to do was partner with their local management to set them free and ride the wave of their passion.
One of the advisors wanted to go to local schools and help organize a “work week” program that would allow young students to discover what working in local businesses is like, with the hope of giving them the desire to become productive later on, rather than passively gliding into unemployment. He told the touching story of his own kid who had learned through such a program that he was good at transcribing music into a music score, which had given him a lot of self-confidence. There was a quiet eloquence about him. There was one challenge, however: the program was supposed to be short-term focused (putting people back to work quickly) while his idea was to prevent people from ever coming to the unemployment office in the first place. With great pragmatism, the new head of the Harlesden office endorsed the idea and gave him a team. He was off to the races.
There were to be many other magic moments involving the Harlesden staff. Two women advisors took on the task of organizing the Somali community, from claimant and staff to employer and volunteer agencies. They painstakingly convinced young Somali males to come participate in workshops run by them (the women in the Harlesden office display a wonderful mix of compassion and toughness, which proved able to overcome even deep culturally engrained gender bias), then proceeded to invite to the party small Somali shop-keepers who could give job applicants a first work experience. They also convinced several local Somali agencies to work together in partnership with Jobs Centre Plus (strangely, these agencies had never worked together before). From September on, these Somali agencies will run a Somali desk inside the Harlesden office, a first in the history of the UK unemployment administration.
Perhaps the simplest, most brilliant idea, was generated by the new head of the office: let the advisors co-create the mode of engagement they wish to have with their job applicants. Experienced advisors instinctively know who is truly looking for a job and wish they could spend more time helping them. Conversely, they also know who is trying to exploit the system and collect unemployment money while pretending to look for a job, and wish they could stop meeting as frequently with those people. Until now, administrative rules required that all advisors follow the same process with all claimants. In the system piloted by the new office head, each advisor gets to pick two claimants and can invest whatever time they desire to get them a job. This has liberated a massive amount of energy on the part of both advisors and job applicants who can now jointly define their unique path to success, thereby producing a quicker path back to employment for deserving applicants and generating faster off-benefit results for the office.
I am writing this from my hotel room in London, awaiting my flight back to Boston tomorrow. Today was the final presentation by the Harlesden team to the top management of Jobs Centre Plus in a posh downtown office in central London. These are the best moments in the life of the teacher that I try to be (in those moments, I always wonder who is teaching whom). The management of Jobs Centre Plus was impressed and praised the team, consultants and advisors alike. Watching the smile on the face of the Harlesden advisors proudly presenting their work to their management was the most gratifying thing in the world. I just wish Tiny had been there.