Experiences of employment and skills devolution: Greater Manchester Combined Authority

"devolution is fantastic and I think we've proved we can manage it".

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The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is made up of the ten Greater Manchester councils and the elected mayor. The ten councils are Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan. These areas, covering a population of 2.8 million, have a track record of working together before devolution. It has aimed to maintain a sense of place and maintaining different identifies throughout.

The Combined Authority commissioned an Independent Prosperity Review to consider how prosperity could be increased and fairly shared across the region. This informed the development of the local industrial strategy, which has helped to frame policy priorities. These priorities include reducing inequality and poverty, and the impacts of an aging population. The employment rate is lower than the UK (72.6% versus 75.7%) and unemployment is higher (4.8% versus 3.9%). Productivity is also lower than the UK average. The area is host to a wide range of employers, including many SMEs. 

Improving higher-level technical skills is a priority of the Industrial Strategy. Almost 10% of the population have no qualifications, two percentage points higher than the national figure. The proportion of residents with level 2 or above and level 4 and above are also below national average (by two and four percentage points respectively). There are nine Further Education (FE) colleges in Greater Manchester, all of which are rated good, as well as eleven sixth forms. Employers who flag skills shortages are being encouraged to link with providers and colleges to address these.

This case study is focused on managing partnerships and looks in detail at two programmes: the Adult Education Budget (AEB) and Working Well.


Greater Manchester has had six devolution deals, starting in November 2014 with a deal that included transport, business support, employment and adult education. This was followed in February 2015 by the second deal which included the devolution of health and social care with a £6 billion budget. The Mayor, Andy Burnham, was elected in May 2017. Alongside him, each local authority leader has a lead portfolio area. The Combined Authority describe themselves as the eleventh authority in the group.

Devolution allowed the pooling of resources and budgets and the sharing of these between different sectors, including employment and health, within the Combined Authority. The link between the latter two underpins the delivery of Working Well. This approach to delivery is described as bringing devolution to life”.

The Independent Prosperity Review identified a number of issues for the Combined Authority, including inequality, poverty, low pay and job quality within traditionally low paid sectors. The Mayor instituted an employment charter for good work.

The Combined Authority explained that devolution allows it to define its problems, and then use the evidence base, as well as a track record of delivery and credibility, to create effective interventions. Skills devolution, in the form of the Adult Education Budget (AEB), has come later than work and health, which are more established.

Data is described as “one of the most important levers to make the right decisions”, allowing a fuller understanding of what people need, what is being delivered, and where there is duplication in the system. It allows a strategic view across the provider base and work with partners to focus delivery where the need is greatest.

Policy changes

Adult Education Budget (AEB)

Devolving the £92 million a year AEB has been a lengthy process; control has only been operational since the 2019/20 academic year. It required close working with the Department for Education, including through a governance group, and a DfE Director General now sit on the Combined Authority’s Employment and Skills Advisory Panel.

In the first year of delivery practical changes, including making funding available for adults to undertake units of advanced learning, particularly linked to priority sectors, have been made. This aims to help people progress in work or update their skills after career breaks or redundancy. There has also been a test and learn approach, in part to enable a quicker response to employer need: “if it’s not there we need to create it. So just being a little bit more proactive in this space is something we’ve definitely started picking up.”

The approach to date has been to keep a lot of the change behind the scenes, with a deliberate focus on maintaining provision. However, at the same time, the provider base has reduced considerably: from more than 300, some with fewer than ten learners; to 36 organisations, with a total of over 80 providers throughout the supply chain. This was part of an exercise to build strategic relationships and ensure quality and demand across the region; the Combined Authority argues a smaller base of primes, sub-contractors and the voluntary sector means it sees their provider base as more focused on meeting identified need. It has also ensured that its processes align with those of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, as many of its providers also have contracts with them.

Becoming a commissioner has meant the Combined Authority working with providers differently. Engaging with different groups has been key to the devolution process: “we did an awful lot of consultation with providers and with colleges and really engaged people…with the voluntary sector…we did a huge amount with leaders and political leaders and with the mayor to make sure that the messages were right”.

The decision not to make radical change in the types of provision presented challenges. The Combined Authority has needed to 'tell the story' of why change is being fostered incrementally to those who want to see big changes.

The Combined Authority recognised it needed to ensure colleges and providers know why it is asking for different data. It put a contract and performance team in place who are reviewing how to best use technology to build and deliver reports, which will allow them to identify how to increase the targeting of interventions. For example, whether specific ESOL courses should be run in certain areas, whether it needs to deliver English and maths to different groups, or whether certain sectors would benefit from the provision of fully funded Level 3 qualifications: “That’s all within our gift now, we’re just trying to gather the evidence as to where the biggest need is”. This data, along with feedback from employers, chambers and growth hubs, will lead in the near future to some “short, sharp procurement rounds” focused on the objectives of the industrial strategy.

Working Well

Working Well had its origins in 2012-13, aiming to address high and persistent levels of worklessness due to ill health. The Combined Authority aimed to take a ‘person-centred’ approach, with links into other sectors including health and housing. It started as a pilot, with Greater Manchester meeting one fifth of the cost and the UK government the rest. Greater Manchester created a Steering Group, including Jobcentre Plus. Working Well went live in 2014, working with 5,000 people with long-term health conditions who had been through the Work Programme. The 2014 devolution deal included an agreement to scale up from 5,000 to 50,000 and co-commission the Work Programme’s successor.

There are now six Working Well programmes with some being primarily health funded. They have a model similar to Troubled Families, with a multi-disciplinary team that can respond to participant need in order to meet the complexity and multiplicity of barriers to work that residents are facing.

The Combined Authority’s evaluation showed that 75% of participants identified poor mental health as the main barrier to work, and 68% identifed poor physical health. The Combined Authority mapped this data against available provision and the services people were accessing, identifying inequality of access to mental health provision; in some areas there was a six week wait for access to therapy, in other areas it was ten months. This was fed back into local health commissioning boards and identified the need for a more joined up response. This has enabled the Combined Authority to commission bespoke therapies. Ongoing evaluation continues to shape local investment decisions and pooling of budgets.

The relationship with central government has “matured and improved” over time. In order to ensure that all ten local authorities had a sense of ownership over Working Well, To develop local ownership, each local authority has a Local Integration Board and a named lead. An informal performance dashboard aims to drive continual improvement.

There were two Working Well providers. Ingeus, a large welfare to work provider, has seven contracts, and Big Life, a local social enterprise, has three. They had different approaches, but both have adapted and learned from each other through the open book contract management approach that the Combined Authority has employed.

Greater devolution has transformed Working Well from a standalone pilot to a system of working in Greater Manchester: “The whole integrated work and health agenda has expanded. We are pooling budgets and resources in a way that wouldn't have happened if it had been just a programme - devolution has meant this is now a way of working, an approach”. The portfolio now includes the £10 million Working Well Early Help, paid for from health funds and aiming to help people in work at risk of leaving their jobs through provision of information, advice and guidance. A pan-Greater Manchester Working Well specialist employment service is planned for people with learning disabilities and autism, along with a programme for people in low paid self-employment and the gig economy.

Lessons Learned

Basing further devolution on proven success can mitigate against innovation

The Combined Authority’s preferred approach to Working Well was to test and learn. However, central government linked increasing devolution powers to proven success, which could encourage  more risk averse decisions, stifling innovation. For example, the Working Well pilot agreed challenging outcomes for its cohort and had to prove success to ensure continued devolution. This could lead to a reduced focus on test and learn.

Sustained investment is important to deliver results

The idea of wrapping other services around employment support has become more difficult as funding has been cut to and eligibility criteria tightened. Since 2014, devolution has allowed the Combined Authority more opportunity to influence and shape programmes but this has also meant asking more of local areas when finances are tight. Conversely, a reduction in resources can, to an extent, facilitate the innovation of different approaches.

A continual improvement approach benefits central and local governance

The Combined Authority is six years into joint working and co-producing with DWP, adopting an action learning and open book (continual improvement) approach to contract management. There has been a two-way learning process, including as relationships have moved from strategic teams to commercial teams.

Governance structures are important

Devolution has demonstrated the importance of strong governance structures. The Combined Authority highlighted its approach to working with local authorities through portfolio leadership, and having a single Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) that covers the whole geography. It also note the importance of the Mayor in leading a local Industrial Strategy and Skills Strategy that sits alongside the work it is doing.

“You need to really understand the place you are based in”

Having the ability to plan and shape delivery has provided the Combined Authority with the opportunity to look more broadly at employment support provision. This has included developing the Work and Health programme, and considering how employment is impacted by skills, the green agenda, bus transformation and travel: "devolution is fantastic and I think we've proved we can manage it".