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Getting (active) welfare to work in Australia and around the world

In the 1990s Australia began reforming its employment assistance system. Referred to as welfare-to-work, at the close of last century Australia had a publicly owned, publicly delivered system. By 2003, that system had been fully privatised and all jobseekers received their assistance via a private agency, working under government contract. To this day, Australia is the only country with a fully privatise quasi-market in employment services.

We have previously referred to this field of policy as ‘the reform that never ends’. In Australia, as in other parts of the world, policymakers have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to design and re-design the way in which jobseekers receive employment assistance. Our research team has been closely following these reforms for more than 15 years. In particular we surveyed frontline employment services staff in Australia, the UK and the Netherlands in 1998, 2008 and 2012. We asked them how they do their job, how they interact with jobseekers, how they link up with other service providers, and how they respond to changes in services delivery policy. What we discovered is a fascinating insight into social policy restructuring and service delivery adaptation.

In the Netherlands the focus has been on devolution. In the UK, the public provider has remained at the centre of the system, although private providers now have increased influence on the system. In Australia, emphasis has been placed on service standardisation and service guarantees. Across all three countries, ‘activation’ has been the catch cry and can be found at the heart of welfare-to-work policy reform in most countries of the OECD.

Activation policy is linked to a ‘work-first’ world-view. Those who subscribe to a work-first philosophy believe that keeping jobseekers busy will generate employment solutions. To be activated is to be engaged – applying for jobs, undertaking training, meeting with employment agency staff – and to be engaged is to be ‘work ready’. To be activated is to be engaged – applying for jobs, undertaking training, meeting with employment agency staff – and to be engaged is to be ‘work ready’. So-called ‘passive’ welfare system have long been criticised as sloppy, inefficient and associated with the old welfare state. In the new era of service privatisation the system is designed to inject energy into the jobseekers’ search for work.

 To be activated is to be engaged – applying for jobs, undertaking training, meeting with employment agency staff – and to be engaged is to be ‘work ready.’

Of course, an active system must include penalties. If jobseekers are required to complete certain tasks, then penalties will be linked to non-compliance. This is the ‘stick’ side of the ‘carrot and stick’ paradigm so often associated with social policy. In Australia, we asked employment services staff how often they sanction jobseekers for non-compliance. They told us that in 1998 they sanctioned 2 per fortnight. By 2008 that had increased to 6 jobseekers per fortnight, and it had remained at 6 by 2012.

We also asked Australian frontline staff the extent to which they felt that management in their private agency would encourage jobseeker to take the first job available, i.e. the extent to which their agency is ‘work-first’ in its approach to employment assistance. We found that in 1998, 61% of frontline staff felt that management would strongly encourage jobseekers to get off benefits. By 2012, that had increased to 69%. We also asked frontline staff what their personal advice would be to jobseekers. In 1998, 50% of frontline staff said that they would strongly encourage jobseekers to get off benefits as quickly as possible, even if the job was not ideal. By 2012, that proportion had increased to 64%.

But activation isn’t the only shift we have observed. Over the past 15 years we have witnessed the emergence of what we call ‘double activation’. Double activation refers to a process whereby jobseekers are activated to ensure that they are engaged in the practice of looking for work, while, at the same time, other mechanisms are in place to activate service delivery staff to ensure that they are actively engaged in the practice of encouraging jobseekers to be active. The state, as purchaser, develops policy that activates client-facing staff, and they in turn activate jobseekers.

In Australia, policies designed to activate frontline employment services staff are closely linked to service standardisation and an increased administrative and ‘red tape’ burden. The most common criticism made of Australia’s private employment services system is that it has become a compliance focused, overly prescriptive system. In other words, to ensure that frontline staff are actively doing their job, the Australian government has created a system in which frontline staff must record every and all interactions with jobseekers. This recording requirement has become a large component of the job.

We asked Australian frontline staff the extent to which they felt that they have autonomy in how to work with jobseekers. In 1998, 27% described themselves as ‘free to decide what to do with jobseekers’. By 2012, that proportion had decreased to 11%. As discretion was lost at the frontline agencies became more hierarchical. In 1998, 11% of frontline staff said that if they were unsure they would refer it to their supervisor. By 2012, that proportion had increased to 29%. Our data suggests that as double activation emerged as the overarching principle guiding welfare-to-work, autonomy at the frontline was lost as frontline staff became increasingly focused on doing what they are told, demonstrating that they are active, and ensuring that they are compliant.

Australia now has a newly designed employment assistance system called JobActive. The next task for our research team is to investigate how agencies learn to deliver enhanced services and how they provide assistance to the hardest to help. Australia, like the UK and the Netherlands, struggles to place the long-term unemployed into sustainable jobs. Uncovering how this can be done better is our focus now and we look forward to reporting those new results as soon as possible.

Headline Image: Scrabble – Profession by flazingo_photos. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. William Taylor

    It would be interesting to read about how those on work active welfare systems fared. Simply put, exploiting people is not real employment and statistics claiming such people are employed distort true unemployment levels. The solution is jobs, not punitive welfare policies. I don’t know of anyone who would not take a well paid rewarding job rather than barely exist on welfare

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