Compare and contrast

I just got out my notes from this morning, when I went to Woolwich Job Centre to explain that I want to be self employed. At the same time that they came out of my pad, some post it notes came with them, notes that I was given last night at the action learning session I did with my group at our lovely sponsors, UnLtd, who give us loads of support, practical, emotional, and other. The first note on the top of the pile was for me to respond to in my own time, but was a prompt for me for further encouragement; “Where has this new found confidence come from?”. I smiled – the memory of a positive meeting still with me the following day, and then opened the notes I took at the Job Centre. What a contrast.

Totally similar groups of people, similar hopes, dreams, entrepreneurial spirit, treated totally differently. The workshop I attended at the Job Centre was delivered by Ixion, a kind of Atos of entrepreneurs, subcontracted by the government to take the percentage of people who are signed on with the Job Centre with big dreams to run their own business, turn them into entrepreneurs, self sustaining businesses, move them onto a 6 month long transitional benefit – The New Enterprise Allowance, known as NEA – and discharge them of the responsibility of the state within a n eight week time frame. The workshop I attended at UnLtd was for the people on the lowest level of its grant, some of whom might recently have been on benefit, but who were getting by for the sake of their business probably on a similar level of income. But the difference! It seems that Ixion are really missing a trick.

The advisor didn’t take questions, he explained the offer in the most punitive terms, explaining that our benefits were going to be withdrawn and we’d better be ready for that. The offer was on the table of this new benefit, but he didn’t want us to take it unless we were ready for it. Fair enough, I thought. I’m ready for it. There are criteria. You have to fill in an approved business plan in 6 weeks. You have to be referred by an advisor and attend an assessment of your business idea the following week. That day I’m having the first meeting of our advisory panel. And, having always been in the support group of ESA, and never being expected, it seems, to work again, I’m not sure that I have an advisor. It turns out I don’t. I have to get one at 9am Monday morning, another day that I’ve got a big focus group meeting in the afternoon.

Of course, maybe I should’ve done this earlier. But I didn’t think it would take this long to go through the process. My fault. My dependency model. I don’t think I was prepared for the dependency model that was laid out before me.

At one point, the Ixion man explained that as we are living in the real world, the government is cutting everything to the bone and we are going to have to deal with the consequences of this. Given that he didn’t take questions, this was perhaps an inflammatory, if self evident, point to make, and the room erupted. He talked over the loud cries of protest with a quote that I wrote down; “There’s no point us sitting and arguing when nothing is going to happen. Accept the reality and work in that reality.” So, if we are all operating in an environment where nothing will happen due to our individual effort, what were we all doing trying to establish our businesses? Accept the reality seemed to me to be a remarkably defeatist attitude to be trying to seed in people who had the gumption to come off benefits. “Be quiet” said a sensible man at the back “the man’s trying to teach us.” But if that is what teaching is, learning by rote and not being allowed to ask questions, I’m glad I’m not at school anymore.

The information he imparted could’ve been – and was – summarised in the leaflet that he handed us at the start of the class. He could’ve taken the opportunity to ask us what our business ideas were. He didn’t offer us a carrot – apart from the financial one – and there were sticks threatening our backsides. It was a top down, dependency model. My fault, my dependency. Maybe I shouldn’t have been there, maybe I didn’t deserve to be there. But I wanted to find out – given that we hope to engage Mental Snapp with the job centre and offer it to people working with their employment support advisor – at least a taste of the inside.

The thing that was missing, that was the contrast with the night before, was the sole emphasis on extrinsic motivation. He had the opportunity to find out about our intrinsic motivation, our dreams. When he tried to put the lid on the government argument an older black lady in the middle row said “But that’s why I’m not letting anyone stamp on my dreams”. Too right, lady. Me too. I’d like to make it so that in raising your head above the parapet and telling the Job Centre you want to be self employed, you don’t have your dreams stamped on either. A bit of blind optimism does no-one any harm. So, thanks, UnLtd, for the contrast that you have provided me. As Nemo Shaw, my advisor, wrote on the post it note for me yesterday, “Where has this new found confidence come from?”

Blowed if I know. Not from Ixion. Maybe it’s just come from listening to myself. And from the contrast between the Woolwich Job Centre and this very nice Irish cafe I’m in now off Old Street waiting for my next meeting. Shouldn’t Woolwich and Old Street share the same dreams? I’m on a mission to address that question to Woolwich. Wouldn’t that be nice, to take Woolwich to an action learning session, sit it down, listen to all that it has learned and hand it a post it note to take away and meditate on: “So, Woolwich, where has this new found confidence come from?”

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