The previous chapter conceptualised the framework of ‘double activation’ as offering far more than a descriptor of the historical congruence between the activation turn in social policy and the marketisation turn in welfare administration. Analytically, it is concerned with how the two tracks of welfare reform are not just conjoined but mutually constitutive. In other words, it focuses attention on the role of marketised implementation structures in not just accompanying but accelerating the policy turn towards workfarist activation. The Irish case offers a rare natural policy experiment for exploring this dynamic in detail because of the co-existence of two employment services programmes operating under the same activation policy settings yet commissioned through distinct governance modes. Drawing on survey and interview research with frontline staff delivering JobPath and LES and service-users participating in the programmes, this chapter explores how the two employment services differed in practice at the coalface of delivery.
Formally, both services operated under the same activation policy setting in terms of requirements to develop PPPs with jobseekers and to provide them with job-search assistance for a period of 12 months. Yet, as detailed in this chapter, the two
The chapter proceeds by first examining how the two frontline workforces approached the demanding elements of activation. In particular, the discussion focuses on the extent to which the JobPath and LES frontline staff reported that they used sanctions and conditionality with clients, and the differences in the intensity of activation (frequency of appointments and extent of job-search monitoring) between the two programmes as reported by delivery staff but also service-users. The second half of the chapter then turns towards the more enabling elements of activation, to consider whether there is evidence that JobPath and LES differed fundamentally in relation to prioritising ‘work-first’ over human capital development. In both cases, the interview and survey data provide robust evidence that a distinctly more workfarist approach was being enacted by the frontline workers delivering JobPath compared with how activation was being enacted by those delivering LES. The reasons why this was the case are the focus of Chapter Five, which explores the different managerial and performance regimes in which the
Reflecting on the intersection between workfare policies and quasi-market implementation reforms, Bredgaard and Larsen suggest that the outsourcing of delivery to market actors may be motivated in part by a political belief that private agencies will be ‘tougher’ in their use of ‘sanctions, demands, and other motivational initiatives’ (2007: 294). In other words, private delivery agents are expected to be more demanding on jobseekers than case managers working in public sector organisations, and particularly if those case managers are trained in social work or other ‘professional moral frameworks’ (van Berkel, 2017: 26) that stand opposed to the enforcement of conduct conditions (Larsen, 2013; Caswell and Larsen, 2017). For instance, Larsen argues that Denmark’s introduction of a quasi-market in the early 2000s was in part motivated by a suspicion that social workers in municipal job centres were ‘protecting the unemployed’ (2013: 111). The OECD’s review of Ireland’s pre-crisis activation policies alluded to similar suspicions about a reluctance to impose sanctions among case officers in FÁS (Grubb et al, 2009: 85–86).
The reasons why private providers might be drawn towards more demanding strategies are several. One is that commissioners often tightly specify contractors’ role in monitoring their clients’ compliance with conduct conditions. Contractors may thus fear being disciplined themselves by the government purchaser if they are found to be too lenient in monitoring jobseekers’ compliance with mutual obligations. In other words, there is a trickle-down effect as the monitoring of providers by the purchaser spills over into the monitoring of frontline staff by agency managers, and down to the scrutiny
A second reason why market providers might be drawn towards enacting more demanding approaches with clients is that behavioural demands such as intensive job-search obligations are low-cost intervention models. They require few investments in training or non-vocational support and offer a way for providers to maximise their revenues if clients can be relatively quickly ‘hassled’ into work. These hard-edged approaches won’t work in many cases – particularly for people with complex barriers beyond a lack of work. But they offer a first port of call as a way of ‘shaking the trees’ (Murphy et al, 2011: 4) to determine if people are unemployed due to low job-search intensity or other, more structural needs.
Insights about the relative ‘demandingness’ of activation are offered by a range of survey and interview questions that frontline JobPath and LES staff were asked. Some addressed issues of enforcement, and the degree to which advisors were encouraged to be meticulous arbiters of compliance. Others addressed issues of frequency and intensity, such as how often participants were expected to attend appointments and other activities. Indeed, as Kaufman argues, fundamentally ‘behavioural conditionality is about attendance’ (2020: 210). Whatever tasks advisors may set, these all depend on service-users first attending case management appointments.
When interviewing Irish frontline staff, it quickly became apparent that the temporal demandingness of activation varied markedly between JobPath and LES. The JobPath providers operated on a higher frequency of client engagement than the LES organisations. Typically, LES mediators reported meeting clients at least “once a month” (Catherine, LES Mediator). This was the minimum contractual requirement although, as one manager explained: “you could work with people and seem them more if they need it” (Laura, LES Manager). Whether mediators did so was ad hoc, and case-by-case. Some even admitted to seeing clients less frequently than required: “If it’s a thing where they are working away, they are happy with their job seeking skills … or they are on a course, then you might see them every two months” (Sarah, LES Mediator).
But in JobPath, frequent appointments were the norm. One provider had a baseline of “an official appointment once every three weeks” (Liam, JobPath Advisor) while the other scheduled appointments “every ten days to two weeks” (Lisa, JobPath Advisor). The rationale was “that momentum keeps them moving”, the implicit assumption being that unemployed people risked failing into idleness if they were not seen frequently by advisors: “At least they’re coming in, and you know ‘God I have to go in there now. I better have something to tell her, I better be doing something’ … because
‘There was a feeling that “In you come, right, out you go because I’ve got somebody else to do” … We’d talk about one or two things but nothing to do with [work]. It’d be more chit chat … I got to the stage where I could come in and be out in 15 minutes.’ (Leonard, service-user, 60s, Kildare)
Beyond the frequency of appointments, another notable difference between how JobPath and LES staff engaged with their clients was that LES mediators generally met with jobseekers in private offices. JobPath advisors, by contrast, worked in open-plan offices that blurred the boundaries between public and private. Appointments were held with only “a divider between you and the other person sitting the other side of the desk” (Sarah, service-user, 40s, Limerick).
‘You’d have people who maybe have behavioural kind of [issues], who would be really struggling emotionally. Maybe they wouldn’t have literacy skills and maybe getting distressed … When the drunk fella starts kicking off, there is nowhere to go. So, you know, if that’s the environment, you’re appearing in … it just reinforces any pre-existing conditions or notions that you have that you are on the absolute bottom of society.’ (Aisling, service-user, 30s, Dublin)
‘[Y]ou might only spend 10 minutes job-seeking because there might be no jobs available or the jobs that were available might have already been applied for. But you still had to sit at the computer for 40 or 45 minutes at least, even if it meant you virtually doing nothing. Because if you left early, your personal advisor then got it in the neck from his manager.’ (Cormac, service-user, 40s, Limerick)
‘They started me going through a process of having to come into the office to sit at a PC and do research on, I don’t know what really, because a lot of the time I was just playing on the PC … I knew what I should be doing, and I wanted a job. But they insisted, and again, the threat of “If you don’t do this, your benefits could be in question”.’ (Frank, service-user, 50s, Clare)
Service-users’ comments about having “to show up [to job-search sessions] or they’d take your money away” (Aisling, service-user, 30s, Dublin) speak to questions of enforcement, and the extent to which JobPath and LES staff were prepared – and threatened – to report breaches of conduct conditions. This issue was further explored through a range of survey questions about the role of frontline staff in enforcing mutual obligations and the extent to which they were encouraged to actively police compliance. These survey data provide important insights into the differences in orientation between JobPath and LES staff, although they should be interpreted cautiously. This is partly because penalty rates were suspended at the time of the survey due to COVID-19. So, the questions
Taking survey data at face value is also problematic insofar as self-reported responses are not always reliable proxies for what people do. On issues of sanctioning perhaps more than anything else, respondents may give the answers they feel they ought to give rather than reporting their behaviours. Nonetheless, these limitations are of less concern for comparative analysis of the kind reported here since they apply equally to the responses of both LES and JobPath staff; and the differences between their responses can still be revealing. The main limitation, however, is that one JobPath provider did not allow its staff to be asked about sanctioning. The provider maintained that contractors did not actually penalty rate claimants; that was a matter for the DSP. All providers did was “let the department know [about non-attendance] and then it’s up to department to sanction them” (Joanna, JobPath advisor). That may be so to the extent that contracted providers do not sanction clients directly. Nevertheless, their role in reporting people to the DSP remains highly salient. What might first appear as a quasi-automatic and purely transactional process is in fact often replete with moments of discretion that accumulate to circumvent or intensify the enforcement of conduct conditions.
Bearing these limitations in mind, the survey data reported in Tables 4.1 and 4.2 show notable differences in both the level of reporting between JobPath and LES staff, as well as in their dispositions towards reporting clients for breaching mutual commitments/obligations.
Enforcement of conduct conditions
|Whether office encourages staff not to be lenient or to be lenient in reporting clients for breaching mutual commitments?||JobPath
(n = 33)
(n = 111)
|1. Not to be lenient||15.2%||5.4%|
|7. To be lenient||0.0%||11.7%|
|p = 0.008 (Fisher’s Exact Test)|
|Estimated proportion of clients (% caseload) that respondents would report for breaching mutual commitments in a typical (pre-Covid) two-week period||JobPath
(n = 27)
(n = 99)
|• Mann-Whitney U-Test = 547, Z=-4.8, p < 0.001|
|To what extent are the decisions you make about your clients determined by STANDARD programme rules and regulations?||JobPath
(n = 76)
(n = 106)
|1. Very little||1.3%||12.1%|
|7. A great deal||17.1%||5.6%|
|p = 0.003 (Fisher’s Exact Test)|
‘The penalty rate stick, I hated it but I have used it … We were supposed to use the penalty rate if there was two DNAs [did not attends]. I would do everything to avoid that. I would phone them. I would haunt them in the hope that it would make a difference.’ (Sarah, LES Mediator)
‘So de facto I use discretion. But every so often I get emails [from Intreo] saying “Do you realise that you’ve got three clients who have two DNAs, and you haven’t referred them for consideration for penalty rating?” Or to be really frank, sometimes I avoid filling in the DNA within the timescales that we’re supposed to … There is a tiny bit of discretion. I know I push it as much as I can.’ (Michael, LES Mediator)
‘In an ideal world [the PPP] should be a great resource. But in a controlled world, where people may actually suffer penalties, it’s potentially dangerous. So, what I generally tend to do is keep the PPP as minimalistic as possible. I use phraseology like “Client is going to explore training options, client is an experienced electrician and seeking work in this area”.’ (Michael, LES Mediator)
JobPath advisors also exhibited discomfort at times about reporting clients. However, they saw themselves as having little wriggle room and tended to view the reporting process as just “part of our compliance that we have to do” (Paula, JobPath Advisor). Any wriggle room was further closed off by the fact that their managers “monitor all that sort of stuff” (Liam, JobPath Advisor) in terms of clients attending appointments and non-engagements being reported: “We really don’t like to do that. But if clients are not engaging … we have to do it. So, they’re watching that as well. They’re watching how many non-engagements you have” (Saoirse, JobPath Advisor).
Embedded in these comments is a sense of supervised rule adherence. This was also reflected in how JobPath staff responded to questions about the extent to which their decision-making was determined by standard rules and regulations. As reported in Table 4.1, over 60 per cent of the JobPath survey respondents reported that the decisions they made about clients – such as whether to report them for non-attendance – were determined by standard rules and regulations. Indeed, 17 per cent claimed that standard rules and regulations determined the decisions they made about their clients to ‘a great deal’ of extent. This compared with just 6 per cent of LES respondents and only a third of LES staff overall claimed that their decisions about clients were determined by standard rules and regulations.
All this suggests that JobPath staff exercised their discretion in a more compliance-orientated way than LES staff. This is
In international terms, less than 3.6 per cent is a relatively low percentage in terms of the proportion of advisors’ caseloads that might be reported for sanctioning. To put this figure into perspective, when UK Work Programme staff were asked an almost identical question in 2016, they estimated that, on average, they would report approximately 5.6 per cent of their clients in a given fortnight (Lewis et al, 2017). In Australia, frontline staff claimed to have reported over 15 per cent of their clients for potential sanctioning (Lewis et al, 2016). Perhaps jobseekers in Ireland are just more compliant, although a likelier explanation is the much broader range of circumstances under which jobseekers in Australia can be sanctioned.
Australia has one of the strictest sanctioning regimes in the OECD in terms of the number of circumstances under which claimants can be reported for sanctioning (Senate Committee, 2019: 102). Of the 11 different circumstances listed in Table 4.2, close to 80 per cent of the Australian employment services staff surveyed in 2016 reported that they would refer a jobseeker for potential sanctioning in every circumstance bar ‘a jobseeker leaves a training course’ (Lewis et al, 2016). Irish frontline staff, by comparison, are far less likely to report that they would refer clients for breaching conduct conditions – although there are notable differences between the responses of JobPath and LES staff.
The data suggest that the circumstances under which LES staff would consider reporting clients for non-compliance are predominantly limited to missing appointments and not
Circumstances when frontline staff would typically report clients for breaching mutual commitments
|When would you normally report a client/jobseeker for breaching their mutual commitments (when a jobseeker …)||JobPath
(n = 24)
(n = 65)
|• Is dismissed from a job or training programme||36%||13%||0.023|
|• Refuses to apply for a suitable job||66%||25%||0.073|
|• Refuses a suitable job offer||96%||26%||<0.001|
|• Fails to commence an employment support programme, work experience, activity, or training||63%||28%||0.003|
|• Leaves a training course||17%||17%||1.00|
|• Fails to contact our office||46%||51%||0.814|
|• Fails to attend a job interview||65%||13%||<0.001|
|• Voluntarily leaves a job||42%||8%||<0.001|
|• Doesn’t turn up for an appointment at our office||42%||78%||0.002|
|• Fails/refuses to sign their Personal Progression Plan||4%||55%||<0.001|
|• Does any of these for a second time||92%||78%||0.226|
‘“These are not your average garden jellybeans; these are gourmet jellybeans,” that’s what he said … My thoughts were well if they are gourmet jellybeans, why am I working for minimum wage, 40-hours a week, sitting on a production line when I trained so hard to not be in those positions, to be able to get into a management role. So, I got a rude text message … that she [advisor] would have to contact Intreo and tell them that I am refusing to go to an interview.’ (Natasha, service-user, 50s, Dublin)
‘They were quite annoyed with me. I tried to explain that from what I knew of call centres … People don’t call call-centres when they’re happy, and you have to be polite, and everything is timed and monitored. Just thinking about it made me even more anxious. And then they sent me to a sort of weird group meeting … we were basically told that we weren’t doing well enough, and we weren’t looking hard enough. This was a warning.’ (Rachel, service-user, 30s, Tipperary)
The forgoing discussion points to clear differences in the extent to which people participating in JobPath and LES experienced varying demands on their time, and in the application of conduct conditions and threats of sanctions for declining recommended jobs. However, it is not the use of demanding measures that differentiates the workfarist model from human capital approaches so much as the prioritisation of ‘job-search intensity’ (Raffass, 2016: 427) and rapid labour market attachment as the path to reintegration. Workfare models will include some enabling measures to support claimants in their search for work. Examples include job-search advice and basic training to gain the entry-level certificates – for instance in forklift driving, manual handing – needed to work in low-skilled occupations. Conversely, human capital approaches place the emphasis on building ‘long-term employability’ (Lindsay et al, 2007: 542) through more substantive forms of ‘vocational skill formation’ (Raffass, 2017: 350). The choice of approach, as Lødemel and Gubrium argue, ‘reflects different understandings of the causes of worklessness’ with workfare approaches being predicated upon assumptions of insufficient job-search effort whereas human capital approaches concern themselves with ‘the effects of social exclusion’ (2014: 329).
Work-first versus human capital development
The survey questions included a range of items designed to tease out whether frontline staff prioritised ‘work-first’ over human capital development, or vice versa. One such measure was a question asking respondents to evaluate which was the more important goal of their agency, on a scale from ‘1. To help clients get jobs as quickly as possible’ to ‘7. To raise the education or skill levels of clients so that they can get the job they want in the future’. A second measure presented respondents with this scenario: ‘After a short time attending your service, an
‘I said, “Look, my college background is I studied mechanical engineering … At the same time, I kind of regret not getting into maybe counselling or youth work. Is there anything out there, a backdoor way to get into youth work?” And then she [advisor] comes along again with hotel receptionist, office administrator, deli
assistants … nightshifts at an Applegreen petrol station.’ (Ray, service-user, 20s, Offaly)
‘It was, “You know how to wash pots, go wash more pots.” And every time I said, “Well yes, I also speak a couple languages and I would like to not solely focus on washing pots”, no.’ (Aisling, service-user, 30s, Dublin)
The survey data reported in Table 4.3 lend credence to these criticisms. When asked whether they would advise jobseekers to take a low-skill, low-paying job or wait for a better opportunity, the vast majority (72 per cent) of JobPath respondents answered that they would encourage jobseekers to take the low-skilled, low-paid job. Indeed, 44 per cent indicated that they would do so in the strongest possible terms. LES staff were more divided in their views. A slim majority (53 per cent) reported that they would lean towards recommending jobseekers to take the job. However, 20 per cent reported that they would advise jobseekers to remain on benefits while a further 26 per cent were neutral between recommending clients to take the job or remain on welfare.
In terms of which was the more important goal of their agency – to help clients to get jobs quickly or to raise the education or skill levels of jobseekers so that they can get the job they want – the differences in response between LES and JobPath staff were even more revealing. Among LES staff, 66 per cent reported that raising jobseekers’ education or skill levels was the more important goal of their agency. This compared with just over 40 per cent of JobPath staff. Indeed, just 14 per cent of LES staff indicated that their agency’s priority was to get clients into jobs as quickly as possible whereas 30 per cent of JobPath respondents reported this view.
Work-first versus human capital development orientation of frontline staff
|Based on the practices in your office today, what would you say is the more important goal of your agency.||JobPath
(n = 77)
(n = 112)
|1. To get clients jobs as quickly as possible||3.9%||5.4%|
|7. To raise jobseekers’ education or skill levels so that they get the job they want in the future||15.6%||27.7%|
|Fisher’s Exact Test p < 0.001|
|After a short time attending your service, an average jobseeker is offered a low-skill, low-paying job that would make them better off financially. If you were asked, what would your personal advice to this client be?||JobPath
(n = 77)
(n = 111)
|1. Take the job and leave welfare||44.2%||24.3%|
|7. Stay on benefits and wait for a better opportunity||0.0%||6.3%|
|Fisher’s Exact Test p = 0.023|
|In an average week, what proportion (%) of your time do you spend on working with other service providers (such as addiction, housing, or other community services)?||JobPath
(n = 69)
(n = 92)
|Mann-Whitney U-Test = 4312, Z = 4.02, p < 0.001|
The Irish, UK, and Australian survey data are not directly comparable. The surveys were conducted at different points in time. So, too much should not be made of the differences in orientation between the three countries other than to acknowledge that Ireland’s quasi-market is not especially ‘work-first’ by the standards of liberal welfare regimes. Nevertheless, in the national context of Ireland’s mixed economy of activation, it does mark a significant embrace of ‘work-first’ and departure from a more historical focus on human capital development. This is further evidenced by the differences in how JobPath and LES staff responded to questions about working with other service providers.
Rice et al argue that ‘the availability of flanking social services’ (2017: 471) is a key ingredient in the capacity for service individualisation, which frequently requires other
Work experience, training, and education
The evidence to suggest that JobPath providers were enacting a distinctly more workfarist model of activation than LES providers was not limited to the survey data on whether frontline workers prioritised ‘work-first’ rather than human capital development. It also came from service-users’ accounts of the qualitative differences in support they received from the two different employment services programmes. In particular, six of the service-users interviewed for this book had experience of both programmes. Among this group, a frequent observation was that compared with their experience of JobPath, the LES made them feel “that education is as good as job seeking” (Aisling, service-user, 30s, Dublin). Several had completed JobPath multiple times. One example was Shay, an LES client who had previously participated in three rounds of JobPath. Throughout
Jim, another person with experience of both programmes, likened JobPath to “your strict father where the LES would be like your uncle minding you and getting you the stuff that he wouldn’t normally get for you” (service-user, 40s, Dublin). One example of this was a local charity that Jim wanted to volunteer with, which he felt “wasn’t a starter with JobPath but it is something that could be looked at with the LES in the form of a CE scheme” (Jim, service-user, 40s, Dublin). Jim was also being assisted to explore opportunities to return to education and to pursue a university degree, which was something that three of the ten LES service-users claimed to have been assisted with. Another example was Leonard, who was pursuing a social sciences degree. For Leonard, the path towards returning to education began with a year-long course in community development that was recommended to him by his mediator shortly after completing a life-coaching course that she had also referred him to. That coaching course had prompted him to consider retraining in community development, which Leonard’s mediator subsequently helped him to pursue: “She rang me one day and said, ‘Look, there’s a year-long study course ... they only take 15 people, it’s a full-time course’ … So, she got me the interview … and I got one of the of the places” (Leonard, service-user, 60s, Dublin).
In other cases, people were supported to find work experience placements through either the TÚS scheme (short-term community work placements) or CE programme (community work placements of between one and three years). One example was Beatrice, a former JobPath client who wanted to pursue
One reason why LES mediators may have been so keen to direct clients towards work experience placements is that the CE and TÚS schemes are frequently administered by local development companies on behalf of the DSP. As such, LES and work experience programmes are essentially managed by the same organisation. This co-management reinforces awareness of the CE and TÚS schemes among LES staff who, in interviews, elaborated on how they would “work very, very closely” (Siobhan, LES Mediator) with the CE and TÚS schemes as “their main kind of progression options” (Angela, LES Mediator) for people without recent employment experience: “Some of the older clients, it’s hard enough because they may have been out of work five, ten years. Again, we’re very lucky. We have the TÚS program. The TÚS supervisors are employed through the local development company. We can self-refer. I’ve seen that being a real plus for clients” (Michelle, LES Mediator).
‘That was the only thing that I was ever told to go to, was a CV one-day course … I asked them was there any training courses, night-time training courses or part time training courses, that I could go on … No, nothing.’ (Siobhan, service-user, 50s, Laois)
‘I was only in one workshop with them for the CV construction … Other than that, I was never offered any kind of course, any kind of upskilling.’ (Megan, service-user, 40s, Cavan)
As implied, the ‘training’ courses offered to JobPath participants were predominantly in-house workshops on job-search rather than vocational skills. This would be in the form of group sessions delivered onsite over several hours. At one office, these workshops were “running three to four times a week” (Joanna, employer liaison and ex-advisor, JobPath) while advisors from other offices likewise described an array of in-house workshops that clients could complete on “the job market, preparing them for work, CV building” (Anna, JobPath Advisor) or on “confidence, interview skills … communication, and team-work skills” (Lisa, JobPath Advisor). These were routinely offered across offices and appeared to be a standardised formula offered to almost all clients. This was reflected by the fact that service-users who had been through multiple rounds of JobPath described repeating the same training on “CV writing, letter writing and interviews at the very start of both of the JobPaths” (Angela, service-user, 60s, Sligo) that they did: “Two years, the same thing. There’s not really any difference like. It’s just
‘They had a big clock image like we were in playschool. You know, big hands at three, little hands at eleven, and she was going around the room and she was saying “Okay, what time do you get up?” Because obviously, the joke there is you’re all unemployed so you’re all getting up at midday to watch daytime telly … So, I said to her, “Well 6 am”.’ (Sarah, service-user, 40s, Limerick)
‘The very first thing they said was “Now, you have to do your CV on a computer. You can’t go doing a handwritten CV, that’s not going to work.” And I was like, “What the actual fuck am I at?” And then the second thing they said, “The other thing is, if you’re going to do a CV it has to be on white paper. So, don’t be submitting purple paper, or pink paper”.’ (Anna, service-user, 30s, Dublin)
These service-users’ experiences of a heavily routinised and ‘work-first’ oriented programme echo the lived-experiences of activation reported by claimants in other Irish studies (for example Finn, 2021; Whelan, 2022). There is, of course, always a danger that qualitative studies of this kind will invariably be skewed towards documenting the most negative of service-users’ experiences. This stems from the likelihood that it is people with an axe to grind who are the most willing to be interviewed about their experiences. Hence the importance of triangulating data from different sources, as this chapter has endeavoured to do.
In Chapter Five, the organisational factors contributing to these differences in how JobPath and LES staff interpreted activation policy on the ground are further unpacked. For, as Brodkin has long-argued, street-level workers ‘do not do just what they want … They do what they can’ (1997: 24). Therefore, to fully appreciate how marketisation accelerates the turn towards workfarist activation we need to examine how quasi-market implementation structures reshape the agency and identities of frontline workers in ways that lead them to emphasise the more demanding elements of activation. It is to this issue that the book now turns.