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Governing Activation at the Street-Level
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This book assesses how the practice of contracting-out public employment services via competitive tendering and Payment-by-Results is transforming welfare-to-work in Ireland.

It offers Ireland’s introduction of a welfare-to-work market as a case study that speaks to wider international debates in social and public policy about the role of market governance in intensifying the turn towards more regulatory and conditional welfare models on the ground.

It draws on unprecedented access to, and extensive survey and interview research with, frontline employment services staff, combined with in-depth interviews with policy officials, organisational managers and jobseekers participating in activation.

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This concluding chapter reviews the key analytical threads and arguments of the book, returning to the concept of ‘double activation’ and tracing the interconnections (conceptually and at the level of street-level practice) between the quasi-market governance of employment services and workfarist activation. It reviews the key dynamics by which quasi-marketisation intensifies a street-level orientation towards enacting a more demanding, workfare-oriented activation model: through how it reconfigures the profile of organisations and people working at the frontline of service delivery (politics of professionalism), and through applying more intensive performance management accountability regimes that discipline street-level workers’ exercises of administrative discretion. Finally, the book concludes by assessing the evidence-base for a demanding, workfarist model of activation and the reasons why governments continue to favour ‘work-first’ strategies despite limited evidence of their effectiveness.

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This chapter outlines how Ireland’s welfare system evolved from an ostensibly passive model with minimal conditionality to a sanctions-oriented, work-first model. Under OECD pressure to adopt a more ‘coercive’ model, payment rates were cut, eligibility conditions tightened, and sanctions introduced for non-compliance with new mutual obligations. This was paralleled by major governance reforms of operational services. The state-run employment service was replaced with an integrated benefits and employment service; Local Employment Services delivered by not-for-profit organisations became subject to tighter performance measurement; and a Payment-by-Results quasi-market was introduced to bolster capacity. The design features of JobPath are reviewed, and how it embedded market governance by organising service delivery through competitive tendering and performance-based contracting. This was in sharp contrast to the pre-existing network of Local Employment Services. However, besides these differences, the two otherwise coalesced in policy time and space. Both were targeted towards the same claimant cohorts and operated under the same activation policy setting. Thus, Ireland’s mixed economy of activation was essentially a natural policy experiment in the use of different governance modes to steer frontline delivery that the remainder of the book harnesses to assess whether and how marketisation changes the substance of policy delivery.

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The experiences of service-users and approaches of frontline staff showed that the model of support delivered under quasi-market conditions was distinctly more workfarist in orientation than the type of support that was provided by not-for-profit organisations in other parts of Ireland’s mixed economy of activation. So why did quasi-marketisation produce these policy effects? How did JobPath’s procurement model – competitive tendering, price-bidding, and performance-based contracting – spill over into organisational practices to adjust the balance between the enabling and demanding elements of activation? This chapter zooms out from the micro-level of caseworker-client interactions to consider issues of organisational dynamics and contracts’ recruitment practices and performance measurement regimes. In so doing, the chapter draws on the Irish case to engage with wider debates about the disciplining effects of managerialism and performance measurement on frontline discretion. It also offers a commentary on the ambiguous ‘professional’ status of activation work and the role of marketisation in contributing to the de-skilling and de-unionisation of employment services staff. The chapter develops the argument that marketisation reshapes agency at the street-level through both a politics of professionalism and politics of discretion

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Since 2010, Ireland has followed a well-trodden path of extending the project of welfare reform beyond the activation of claimants to the ‘double’ activation of the organisations and frontline workers responsible for implementing active labour market policies on the ground. This chapter takes a closer look at ‘double activation’ as an analytical lens, and why the concept holds significance beyond describing the conjunction between the two tracks of welfare reform. What is it about the parallel unfolding of governance reforms of delivery organisations that is of wider interest to the shape of activation reform? The chapter also introduces the Governing Activation in Ireland study underpinning this book: the research design and how the study differed from previous studies of the impacts of marketisation on the frontline delivery of employment services. The chapter concludes with a consideration of the underlying conceptual linkages between workfare and marketisation, drawing attention to the theories of motivation they share and the ways in which they each involve a normative commitment to the commodification of claimants.

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The Irish case offers a rare natural policy experiment for exploring the intersection between workfarist activation and welfare-to-work markets. This is due to the co-existence of two similarly targeted employment services programmes commissioned through distinct governance modes. Drawing on survey and interview research with frontline staff delivering JobPath and Local Employment Services, and with 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. Yet, as detailed in this chapter, the two services differed in significant ways as to how they implemented this activation case management model. This was especially in relation to how they adjusted the balance between the demanding and enabling elements of activation: whether they prioritised a regulatory approach anchored in job-search conditionality and the enforcement of conduct conditions or focused predominantly on ‘employability building’ through education, training, and work experience. 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 Local Employment Services.

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This introductory chapter situates the case study of Ireland that follows in the context of wider international welfare reforms. These include the social policy turn away from human capital development approaches towards a more demanding, workfare-oriented activation model, and the creation of quasi-markets in employment services. The chapter reviews these developments internationality while offering an analysis of the distinction between workfare and human capital development approaches to activation, as well as the variety of quasi-market models.

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Responding to the need for innovation, governments have begun experimenting with ‘design thinking’ approaches to reframe policy issues and generate and test new policy solutions. This paper examines what is new about design thinking and compares this to rational and participatory approaches to policymaking, highlighting the difference between their logics, foundations and the basis on which they ‘speak truth to power’. It then examines the impact of design thinking on policymaking in practice, using the example of public sector innovation (PSI) labs. The paper concludes that design thinking, when it comes in contact with power and politics, faces significant challenges, but that there are opportunities for design thinking and policymaking to work better together.

Open access

Responding to the need for innovation, governments have begun experimenting with ‘design thinking’ approaches to reframe policy issues and generate and test new policy solutions. This paper examines what is new about design thinking and compares this to rational and participatory approaches to policymaking, highlighting the difference between their logics, foundations and the basis on which they ‘speak truth to power’. It then examines the impact of design thinking on policymaking in practice, using the example of public sector innovation (PSI) labs. The paper concludes that design thinking, when it comes in contact with power and politics, faces significant challenges, but that there are opportunities for design thinking and policymaking to work better together.

Open access