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Co-production in the Offenbach Employment Agency: Job seekers providing peer support for each other

Introduction

The co-production initiative MainPate-DeinPateis a highly innovative approach designed by the MainArbeit Employment Agency of Offenbach Council (close to Frankfurt am Main). It enables job seekers (entitled to benefits under Social Security Code II) to work in pairs to help each other to integrate into gainful employment. The peer support pairs are supported by frontline staff of the Offenbach Employment Agency to jointly define milestones and to implement them together, step by step. The idea for this approach came from Ahmet Neseli, who works as a personal coach for jobseekers in MainArbeit. A certified co-production training course by Governance International provided the methodological framework and the freedom to experiment with the approach within a co-production lab. The results from the first experimental phase are encouraging. This case study explains the systematic co-production approach and presents the successes and plans for the further development of the MainPate-DeinPate” project.

 

Hier können Sie die Zusammenfassung der Fallstudie auf Deutsch lesen
(download the German version).

Trigger and objectives of the initiative

"At last I feel valued and can enjoy counselling eye-to-eye”.

Job centres and employment agencies are subject to constant changes and cutbacks, which pose new challenges to the work of managers and staff with their service users. In 2019, the Offenbach Employment Agency provided staff members with the opportunity to participate in a training programme on co-production, which was delivered by the non-profit organisation Governance International. The training was also attended by staff of third sector organisations which cooperate with MainArbeit. The aim of the co-production training was to help MainArbeit to develop innovative approaches to extend its programme for counselling and placement of unemployed people eligible under Social Security Code II (SGB II).

Co-production involves the outcome-oriented cooperation between MainArbeit (or their third sector partners) and their service users - i.e. those entitled to benefits from the basic provision for job-seekers (Social Security Code II) - who are to be supported in their integration into gainful employment. The skills, resources and strengths of the employable people in need of assistance are to be made available for the planning, design, implementation and evaluation of employment services. In particular, the top managers of the MainArbeit desired that service users would be included as active partners in the overall process more systematically than in the past, in order to achieve improvements in public outcomes or efficiency.

The project “MainPate-DeinPate” aims to enable employable people in need of assistance to help others in the same position, working with the support of MainArbeit case managers. In particular, service users should learn to help each other to develop solutions and implement them together. This means that the service users of the Employment Agency are no longer considered to be ‘passive customers’, but actively participate in the development process to improve their own employability and that of their fellow service users.

This innovative project involved experimentation with new forms of support for MainArbeit service users. The target group included service users from both youth groups and adult groups.

In mutual support, service user A as a ‘mentor’ supports service user B and vice versa, so that both service users learn from each other’s lived and professional experiences. The aim of this co-production approach is to reduce barriers to integration in order to increase opportunities in the labour or training market.

A key objective of the project was to enable improved communication between service users among themselves, and also between service users and front-line staff of the Offenbach Employment Agency. The new communication is intended to take place at eye-to-eye level, with a higher intensity and appreciation of the other party.

What was the procedure? Who was decisively involved in the initiative?

The project management group consisted of five staff members of MainArbeit, who work as personal coaches for service users. Three service users from the under-25 years age group and three from the over-25 age group agreed to participate voluntarily in the project and were invited to an information event. This was the first time that all participants of the project came together.

After the presentation of the project, matching of the participants took place. After a short interview with each participant, the project managers formed three tandems - always one service user from the under 25 group with one service user over 25 and all participants signed a data protection declaration:

Tandem 1: Service User A (over 25) - Service User B (under 25)

Tandem 2: Service User C (over 25) - Service User D (under 25)

Tandem 3: Service User E (over 25) - Service User F (under 25).

The participants were also provided with the contact details of all project managers, so that they could contact their preferred project manager with questions and suggestions throughout the project. Furthermore, they also received a project folder with the following documents:

  • Questionnaires for self-assessment and external assessment
  • Questionnaires for each individual tandem meeting.

In addition, a questionnaire was developed for each milestone meeting, which was discussed together with the project participants and completed and evaluated by the project management.

The participants were encouraged to meet with their tandem partner at least once a week. Whether a tandem met more often was left up to them. Every three weeks a milestone meeting was held with all parties involved (project management and service user tandem). In these meetings the following key issues were discussed:

What has resulted from the mutual peer support so far?

  • How often and where has the tandem met?
  • Which topics were discussed?
  • How do you identify and assess any changes that have occurred?

Have my expectations of my mentor or the project team been met so far?

  • Have the issues that concern me been discussed?
  • What has changed for me?

What are my/our plans for the period up to the next milestone meeting?

  • How should these plans be implemented?

In which planned projects can MainArbeit support you?

  • What kind of support from the Employment Agency is needed and how should it be provided?

The project participants met at various places of their own choice outside the building of the Offenbach Employment Agency, for example in social cafés. Some of the tandems also met more than once a week. The issues discussed in the tandem meeting were recorded in a Workbook.

The project leaders met every Wednesday to ensure the positive progress of the project, discuss new ideas and develop future models of the peer support initiative.

What results and impacts have been achieved?

First of all, the participants reported that only through the “MainPate-DeinPate” project were they able to get to know better the work of MainArbeit front-line staff, with all its positive and negative aspects. They were better able to imagine themselves in the role of a staff member of MainArbeit and to realise that staff also have managers asking for achievement of defined goals. Furthermore, they also recognised more clearly that staff members have to make decisions based on the framework of legislation.

In contrast to the usual counselling interviews in the Offenbach Employment Agency, participants felt that the discussions during the experimentation period were more intensive and eye-to-eye, which made them feel more valued and, above all, taken seriously.

Participants also gained the very interesting insight that other people have similar problems, worries and wishes to their own. Therefore, participants expressed the wish, already during the first milestone meeting, to meet the whole group (i.e. all tandems) to exchange ideas and to get to know each other better.

A positive example of a peer support tandem:

The importance and potential of the co-production initiative already became obvious during the matching process. Let us take the following example of Tandem 1: Service User A (over 25) – Service User B (under 25).

Brief description of Service User A: The service user is 35 years old, comes from Bulgaria and has had to learn German in a short time. She has a life partner and a one-year-old child. She had studied and worked in different jobs in Bulgaria, among others as a waitress. She is very ambitious and always sets herself high goals. She wants to continue her education, learn the German language thoroughly in order to find a good job in the future. She is exceptionally good at managing both her family life and professional career. She is very extrovert, hard-working and extremely motivated. During the project, she attended a further training course but nevertheless still found time to take part in the co-production initiative and did so with great pleasure.

Brief description of Service User B: This service user is 24 years old and at the beginning of the experimentation phase was a rather introverted, calm person who struggled with many problems in her private life. In the first interview it became clear that she had very little self-confidence and that there were many issues in her life to which she was not facing up to, simply because she thought she would not be able to succeed, given her private problems.

Through the initial interviews it became clear to the project leaders that these two service users would make a good match. On the one hand, there was a motivated, self-confident person who is continually setting herself new goals and doing everything necessary to achieve them. On the other hand, there was a younger person with little self-confidence, and who was introverted and did not tackle things because she believed that she would not be able to manage.

The result of this tandem amazed all participants, project managers and other MainArbeit colleagues to whom the project was presented as well as the Governance International trainers. Service user B had so many ideas and goals of her own at the end of the project. She was now more self-confident and no longer withdrew into herself. In a final project event in November 2019 of the Employment Agency she volunteered to make a public presentation. She reported about her positive experiences and gave a brilliant presentation. She also had the courage to approach the audience, and told the participants of the event that she now had a concrete goal in life. She acknowledged the important role of her tandem partner, service user A, for this positive development. She received a lot of praise for this from the audience after the presentation.

Moreover, the initial fear that the support would only be one-way from service user A to service user B was unnecessary, as service user A had also benefited greatly from the experience of her tandem partner, as she herself reported at the event – in particular, she was encouraged to realise that she was able to influence and help another person facing up to employment problems similar to her own.

The other two tandems also achieved positive results. Service user B summarised the experiences of the participants of the peer support tandems at the final project event as follows:

  • "We have made friends."
  • "It was a positive exchange of experiences among ourselves."
  • "We experienced mutual motivation through emotional support."
  • "We were able to develop new ideas and ways of doing things."
  • "It was a lot of fun, because it was something different for a change."
  • "The meetings of the whole project group gave us an additional exchange of experiences."
  • "It was at last a way of communicating more trustingly with the MainArbeit staff."
  • "Communication was at eye level, the talks were more intense and we experienced more mutual understanding."
  • "Due to the diversity of the different personalities of the Job Centre's advisors and associates, there was improved professional support for us."
  • "We felt a strengthening of our self-confidence through being expected to exercise personal responsibility."

After the project, the participants expressed the wish that this project should definitely be continued.

Key figures and other evidence of success

The following table summarises the results achieved after the first experimentation phase:

Results of the co-production initiative “MainPate–DeinPate”:

Before the first experimental phaseDuring or after the first experimental phase
Service user A (unemployed)After a 14-day internship, the service user was employed by a company on the basis of an employment contract subject to social insurance contributions
Service user B (unemployed)After a 14-day internship the service user started to study
Service user C (unemployed)Internship with the option of employment subject to social insurance contributions
Service user D (looking for work, participating in a training programme)Start of vocational training
Service user E (unemployed)Qualification as a career changer (retraining) with remuneration subject to social insurance contributions
Service user F (looking for work, participating in a training programme)Start of vocational training

All the six participants in the peer support tandems were able to find a placement after the project. The two service users who started a vocational training programme during the project expressed their interest in continuing the project anyway. This was partly because they liked the project very much but also out of their desire to help other people.

Costs and savings

The project “MainPate–DeinPate” is still in its experimental phase but it has already been presented to staff of other municipal employment agencies in Germany and to managers of the Ministry of Social Affairs in the state of Hesse, all of which has raised a lot of interest in the co-production approach.

As we are still in the initial stages, there is currently no core funding, e.g. from Federal or State Government Departments. However, the project is not very cost-intensive and only requires a small budget for room hire and hospitality at the information event and milestone meetings.

At the information event, the participants were offered biscuits and non-alcoholic beverages. This event took place in a room rented by the MainArbeit outside the Employment Agency Offices. For the milestone discussions, the project team met with participants in a social café and ensured that drinks for the participants were paid for. In addition, the participants were offered the opportunity to use free public transport during the project period. One participant accepted the offer.

During the experimental phase, the three tandems had five staff members at their disposal. We considered that at least four project managers were necessary to deliver the project, so that support continued to be available during the holiday period and there would also be some slack in case of sick leave of staff.

Furthermore, a lesson from the experimental phase is that as many staff as possible should learn how co-production can be implemented in their own work, so that they can pass on what they have learned to colleagues. At the same time, the group of people involved in the co-production labs should remain manageable in order to facilitate an intensive exchange of experience.

The staff time dedicated to project management and support of the peer support tandems, as well as the hospitality costs, were approved by top managers of Offenbach Employment Agency.

What can be learned from the project, what can be transferred to other topics?

The involvement of service users in the daily work of the MainArbeit showed many positive results. The work atmosphere was felt to be more pleasant, because staff and service users met outside the Employment Agency. This in turn promoted a faster build-up of trust. As a result, service users were able to "open up" after a very short time and talk about both their wishes and also their problems. The closer relationship of staff to service users enabled better cooperation between both groups.

It is important to note that the service users participated in this project voluntarily. In particular, four of the participants already took part in training programmes of the Offenbach Employment Agency. Nevertheless, they were motivated to take part in the peer support project in addition to their training. This made the co-production initiative different from assignments of service users to specific programmes which they legally had to follow, or else face sanctions.

The first experimentation phase clearly shows that very good results can be achieved by co-producing pathways to improvements with service users and making them feel needed and valued.

In a typical counselling situation between a frontline staff member and a service user in the Employment Agency, assignments to programmes are often seen as coercion by the service users, which makes them reluctant to participate so that, in some cases, they even withdraw. Moreover, public buildings seem to arouse an uncomfortable feeling in service users from the very first moment, with the risk that staff members and service users feel constrained and replicate certain behaviour patterns. For the MainPate project, we deliberately chose spaces outside the Employment Agency. Participants in the project saw this as positive, as it helped them to ‘open up’ and had fewer problems discussing private issues.

Furthermore, as far as front-line staff were concerned, the co-productive relationship with service users seemed to be more promising. Project team members were able to get to know their service users better and their counselling of service users was more targeted and led to faster results.

Finally, the results of our Co-production Lab as part of the Governance International Co-Production Star Training Programme shows that peer support of service users works even under the constraints which an Employment Agency imposes on staff-user interactions. It therefore seems likely that it would also be possible to use it more in other public services. People can support each other in solving problems collaboratively and promptly. In this way, everyone can benefit from each other’s life experiences in order to reach a new milestone in their own lives. Of course, the prerequisite is the will to help other people. However, finding people willing to help should not be a problem at all, as we have experienced in our “MainPate–DeinPate” initiative.

Further information

Since the project "MainPate-DeinPate" is innovative and is still developing, we cannot give any literature references or URLs. Instead, we would like to take a short look into the future and explain how the co-production project is likely to continue.

The second experimental phase is likely to involve a larger number of tandems from new target groups. We are currently planning seven tandems, that is, fourteen participants. The second pilot phase was intended to start as early as March 2020, but has been postponed due to the Covid-19 situation. We will start by introducing the project to the whole Employment Agency in Offenbach and to all colleagues involved with placements, who will be invited to identify suitable service users in their own service user data base and inform them about the project. The participants of the first generation of “MainPate-DeinPate” will also be invited to participate in the informal information meetings. Having successfully participated in the project themselves, they are best able to motivate sceptical service users to participate in the second phase.

Interested service users should be referred to the project team, so that we can form a pool of potential participants, whom we can invite to an information meeting. As soon as we have fourteen clients who agree to participate in the project, the second experimental phase will start.

In the future, we intend that the matching of the tandems will not be done directly by the project managers, but will take the form of speed-dating. This means that the tandems will be enabled to form themselves. Each participant should name three desired candidates (1st choice, 2nd choice and 3rd choice) in the course of the speed-dating, with whom they can imagine forming a tandem. If necessary, speed-dating will also take place online - this will require further experiments.

After the speed-dating, the project team will check which tandems have been created. If an adjustment is necessary, the project team can always intervene. When choosing the desired candidates, the service users should always ask themselves from whom they hope for the most help or with whom they can imagine having good cooperation.

After this preparation phase the actual project will start with the meetings of the tandems and the milestone discussions. In the first experimental phase, 100 days were planned for this, but this was extended to 120 days due to the holiday period – we will be flexible but we do think that setting a quite short deadline emphasises that we are hoping for fast results on behalf of all the participants.

Given our experience in the first experimental phase, we have high hopes for the contribution which this project will make to our future work. We believe that co-production of this sort will be a core way of improving the outcomes for our service users.

If the project “MainPate-DeinPate” has aroused your interest, you are very welcome to contact us.

About this case study
Main Contact

Ahmet Neseli
Arbeitsberater/
Arbeitsvermittler
MainArbeit. Kommunales Jobcenter
Offenbach am Main
Berliner Straße 190
63067 Offenbach am Main
E-Mail: ahmet.neseli@offenbach.de

Corinna Herpich
Arbeitsberaterin/
Arbeitsvermittlerin
MainArbeit. Kommunales Jobcenter
Offenbach am Main
Berliner Straße 190
63067 Offenbach am Main
E-Mail: corinna.herpich@offenbach.de

This case study was written by Corinna Herpich and Ahmet Neseli in August 2020.

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