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The battle against bureaucracy

Martin Whittaker reports on the progress of the Connexions support service for teenagers and the obstacles ahead

THE Government's emerging new advice and support service for teenagers is a success, according to Ivan Lewis, the minister for young people.

Connexions is working, he told careers service professionals recently. More than half a million interventions have been made to help young people in its first six months, 70 advice and guidance "one-stop shops" have opened, and more than 1,600 personal advisers are in post.

But Mr Lewis warned against complacency. "We have a duty to ensure the most exciting youth support service for a generation is transformed from a radical concept to a service which makes a real difference to the lives of young people on a day-to-day basis in every part of our country," he said.

The concept certainly was radical: integrating all support services for 13 to 19-year-olds; employing an army of personal advisers to mentor youngsters; and cranking up that favourite catchphrase, using "joined-up thinking" to co-ordinate the work of government departments and agencies, voluntary sector groups, youth services and careers services.

Fifteen areas in England now have Connexions up and running, and in April a new phase kicks in when 18 more are expected to begin delivering the service.

But already there have been concerns over the unnecessary red tape this complex task could generate, especially as the end aim is singularly unbureaucratic: to create a simple, single point of contact for the young person to help them stay on in learning.

From the beginning, the Connexions pilot areas were allowed a certain leeway in how they ran the service. But some fear this relative freedom will be short-lived as the Government seeks to demonstrate outcomes for its pound;455 million funding.

Steve Stewart, executive director of Coventry and Warwickshire Connexions service, said: "My big anxiety is that as we get down the road of best value and a further 18 start in April, we'll then get into an enormously bureaucratic audit trail."

There are also issues about the foundations on which Connexions is built - the legacy of the Conservatives' privatisation of the careers services - which has resulted in the service operating differently in different parts of England.

In some areas, for example Devon and Cornwall, it was relatively straightforward: the existing careers service changed to become Connexions.

But in others, such as Buckinghamshire, careers services were delivered by profit-making companies with shareholders, who would not take kindly to the company being changed into non-profit-making Connexions services. So, instead, they are sub-contracted to deliver Connexions.

Inevitably, these different models have sparked a debate over which type will in the long run be most effective.

Coventry and Warwickshire Connexions delivers the service directly, and Steve Stewart believes the sub-contracted services will result in more red tape. "I don't believe that's the right way to do it," he says. "But I understand the national unit's problem: they've inherited this headache.

"I've argued that it's not in the best interests of young people. Those of us who aren't in favour of sub-contracting believe it is going to be money wasted on bureaucracy. Those involved in sub-contracting who think it's the right way forward say it will make the market leaner and fitter, that they deliver better value and the cheapest possible price."

Careers Management Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of defence company Vosper Thorneycroft, which delivered around 17 per cent of the careers services before Connexions. It is now sub-contracted to deliver Connexions in Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and part of north London.

Chief executive Allister McGowan believes that in the short term, those companies which have simply changed over to become Connexions will appear to make more progress more quickly.

But he added: "Although the contract model will take longer to roll out, it will at the end of the day represent much more of a partnership approach because there is much more equality of weight between the partners, and I think it will be capable of producing more radical solutions."

He concedes that there is a danger of the sub-contracted services being more bureaucratic. "Those of us who are involved in the sub-contract model are very conscious of those dangers," he said.

"I think most of the sub-contract partnerships involved are anxious to minimise the bureaucracy and to see the centre of the partnership as slim as possible."

The body overseeing the new service nationally has already recognised the dangers of bureaucracy in setting up the service.

Anne Weinstock, head of the Connexions Service National Unit, has appointed a "bureaucracy tsar" (FE Focus, January 4, 2002) and vowed to tackle the issue of duplication and waste in its dealings with local Connexions partnerships.

She believes it is too early to judge which type of partnership will deliver best. "What we said was, we'll test out our instincts and we'll review it a couple of years down the road. And if it's not working by then, we'll be very tight on things like value for money.

"I want most of the funding to go to front-line personal advisers - I don't want it to go on massive infrastructures. And depending on where the different partnerships sit, one will argue against the other model in terms of bureaucracy.

"We can't allow the partnerships to be run by private companies that would take profit out of public money. But it was very clear that they had a role to play and a lot of experience to give. So I think it's far too early to judge that. We have to look at that a year down the road."

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