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Innovation in Unemployment: Are We Setting Ourselves Up for Failure?


Friday, 10th February 2017 at 8:30 am
Kevin Robbie
To truly foster innovation in unemployment we must understand what works already and ensure all three barriers underlying the issue are addressed, writes United Way Australia CEO Kevin Robbie.


Friday, 10th February 2017
at 8:30 am
Kevin Robbie


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Innovation in Unemployment: Are We Setting Ourselves Up for Failure?
Friday, 10th February 2017 at 8:30 am

To truly foster innovation in unemployment we must understand what works already and ensure all three barriers underlying the issue are addressed, writes United Way Australia CEO Kevin Robbie.

“Someone needs to say it,” is what I keep hearing.

We in the social purpose sector and government look to be scrambling for ideas to address unemployment in Australia. But the answers exist already. Are we not learning?

There is $96.1 million available through the government’s Try, Test and Learn Fund to “trial new or innovative approaches to assist people who are at risk of long-term reliance on welfare into stable, sustainable employment”. On Friday, a large group of us will come together for the Fund’s Policy Hack, pooling ideas to address welfare dependency for young single mothers, young carers, and students at-risk of unemployment. This is no traditional government funding round though.

There’s a real danger of squandering the opportunity if we fail to use the wealth of international and national best practice that already exists on “what works” to tackle entrenched long-term unemployment – including the Australian government’s previous innovation funding in this space – to inform the foundation for future innovation.

We need to accept that to truly foster innovation in this space, our ideas must also address all three layers that make securing employment such a challenge:

  • Structural barriers – for example, there are few or no jobs in certain locations in Australia.
  • Institutional barriers – for some groups, such as ex-offenders or people with disabilities, it is currently particularly challenging to secure employment. We need institutional change to address this.
  • Personal barriers – it is well recognised that particular challenges, such as mental health or drug and alcohol issues, create additional difficulties for some people to secure employment.

Common sense actions can address these, and ensure innovation increases stable, sustainable employment for people at risk of long-term reliance on welfare:

  1. Creating an enabling environment for real collaboration

There is no shortage of funding to address unemployment in Australia. More funding for one employment service will not deal with this issue. We know that we lack effective collaboration within and across sectors to fully support people to secure and sustain employment.

In the early childhood development space, Opportunity Child is an “innovation lab” testing the co-funding of deeply collaborative approaches, based on evidence, to generate local innovations that improve early childhood outcomes in communities of disadvantage. We should try this for unemployment.

  1. Ensuring employers are front and centre at every step

Employers create jobs. We’re missing the obvious if employers are not at the centre of all dialogue about tackling unemployment in Australia. Employers are not just “a stakeholder at the table”, they are key in designing the way forward. There are many great existing examples where employers have changed the institutional environment already in Australia, for example for Indigenous Australians, partnerships such as the Industry Employment

Initiative led by SVA or internationally through demand-led employment initiatives by McKinsey with United Way in Brazil, Mexico, India, Kenya and USA. We need to build on these.

  1. Trialling social enterprise and enterprise hubs

A range of international evidence points to both social enterprises and enterprise hubs an effective way to create jobs for long-term unemployed people. While these interventions may cost slightly more, the cost-benefit analysis is compelling when stacked against long-term welfare dependence.

We need a culture of understanding of what works already, and to ensure that all three barriers underlying unemployment in Australia are at the heart of any innovation in unemployment. We need to challenge and change our way of working in the NFP sector, as the status quo has not delivered. Are we ready?

About the author: Kevin Robbie is one of Australia’s leading social innovators. Prior to joining United Way Australia as CEO in 2015, Robbie served as executive director of employment at Social Ventures Australia, leading their Industry Employment initiative. Scottish-born, Robbie was chief executive of Forth Sector in the UK, special adviser to the UK Government Cabinet Office and has served on not-for-profit and government advisory boards.


Kevin Robbie  |   |  @ProBonoNews

Kevin Robbie is a director at Think Impact

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