Public Employment Services and

Welfare Reform at the Frontline

The Activation Turn

The context for the project is the recent ‘activation turn’ in Irish social policy, which has been closely followed by a series of operational reforms of Ireland’s public employment services.

The ‘activation turn’ is an umbrella term that refers to ‘the reorientation of labour market policy’ in OECD countries away from demand-side measures towards more active supply-side approaches (Bonoli 2010). It captures both ‘traditional’ active labour market programs (ALMPS) aimed at raising jobseekers’ employability through education and training programs as well as approaches that combine placement services with increasing benefits conditionality, stronger work incentives and sanctions for non-compliance with various activity tests— ‘the so-called “workfare” approach’ (Bonoli 2010; Peck & Thedore 2000). It is the intensification of such ‘workfare’ approaches since the late 1990s that is largely the focus of contemporary debate on welfare reform and the activation turn in social policy (Rafass 2016).

Until recently, the ‘activation turn’ that had taken root internationally in social policy since the late 1990s did not significantly inform social policy in Ireland. Prior to the financial crisis, and in contrast to most of its OECD counterparts, Ireland’s social welfare system incorporated little monitoring or enforcement of work-related conditionality while the country’s labour market programmes were highly fragmented. Despite reform ideas being mooted for some time by organisations such as the National Economic and Social Council (NESC 2005), activation practices were under-developed with far ‘less use of sanctions and conditionality’ (Murphy 2016) relative to other EU countries, and especially liberal welfare states. The only ‘active’ labour market elements were optional training and work-experience programmes such as TÚS and community employment schemes, and FÁS, the national labour exchange service. These programmes were isolated from income support and also highly fragmented across multiple agencies

However, the crisis and surge in the number of people on unemployment payments provided a policy window to implement a programme of ‘rapid modernisation.’ Social security retrenchment and reform began with the introduction of rate cuts to all working age payments in the 2010 and 2011 budgets (Dukelow and Considine 2014), with younger jobseekers bearing the brunt of these cuts. This was followed by the introduction of new ‘penalty rates’ (amounting to 25 per cent of total payments) for those on Jobseeker’s Allowance or Jobseeker’s Benefit. For the first time, unemployed jobseekers could now be sanctioned if they refused or failed to attend meetings requested by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, or did not participate in suitable employment support, training or work-experience programmes (Cousins 2019).

Parallel Operational and Governance Reforms

The social policy turn towards ‘activation’ is only one part of the recent history of welfare state transformation in Ireland. The agencies administering benefits and delivering employment services to jobseekers have also been substantially reconfigured since the crisis.

Ireland’s hisotrical national employment service (FAS) was merged with Social Welfare offices to create Intreo, a new national employment and entitlements service. However, the provision of employment services to the long-term unemployed (those on payments for 12 months or more) was transferred to the existing network of community-run Local Employment Services (LES) and to two companies contracted to deliver a newly created Payment-by-Results programme, Job Path, which commenced in 2015.

Ireland’s PES system has thus quickly evolved into a highly mixed economy of activation. A public agency (Intreo) provides employment services to newly registered jobseekers for an initial 12 months. Those who are longer-term unemployed are referred to either a privatised, Payments-by-Results programme or, alternatively, one of the countries’ network of Local Employment Services, which are commissioned under a different model.

But beyond a handful of government-commissioned evaluations, we know relatively little about how employment services are delivered on the ground: what kind of support is offered, by whom, and whether (and in what ways) the services provided by Intreo, Job Path, and LES substantially differ in practice. This is a key evidence gap in the context of Ireland’s economic recovery and the need for employment services to adapt to a situation of lower unemployment and a cohort of jobseekers dealing with greater employment challenges. Moreover, in the context of climate change, PES will also have an important role to play in promoting labour force transitions to more sustainable employment. This raises important questions about the type and quality of jobs unemployed people are being supported into by public, private and community-sector providers.

Research Approach:

a Street-Level Bureaucracy perspective

These operational and PES governance reforms have received far less attention in Irish social policy debate than the formal active labour policy changes they have accompanied. This is indicative of a wider ‘blind spot’ in the international research field on active labour market policy reform, which has tended to treat changes in public administration and substantive active labour policy reforms in isolation (Bredgaard and Larsen 2007). But these operational and PES governance reforms are no less significant to understanding how the Irish welfare state is shifting and evolving, and what the implications of active labour policy changes are likely to be for the (re)distribution of the benefits and burdens of social citizenship. This is not least because of the role that frontline delivery agencies and the people that work within them (so-called street-level bureaucrats) play in determining the shape of policy on the ground.

In the contemporary street-level bureaucracy scholarship, they are instead theorised as ‘de facto policymakers’ who, in the process of applying policy, also renegotiate some of its content and the distribution of benefits and services it produces (Brodkin 2013). Consequently, we should be careful about ‘using formal, official policies as proxies for policy practices’ (van Berkel 2020) or assuming that changes in the policy context, as codified in law or regulation, flow through to how access to benefits and services are practically experienced. On the flipside, governance reforms that alter the composition of street-level organisations and the conditions of frontline activation work are likely to have substantive policy effects because of how they change the circumstances under which activation policies are brought ‘into being’ (Caswell 2019).

Drawing on an approach that has been applied to study welfare reform and the frontline delivery of activation in Australia, the UK and the Netherlands, the project will

  • Map key points of similarity and difference between Ireland’s contracted-out and publicly-delivered employment services

  • Consider how differences in contracting approaches lead to variations in the kinds of support delivered by providers on the ground

  • Provide an analysis of jobseekers’ and other participants’ lived-experiences of activation, and the role of public, private, and community delivered services in promoting their labour market reintegration

  • Assess the extent to which the Irish experience of PES contracting is convergent with or divergent from experiences of marketization in other welfare states, including Australia and the UK

These questions will be addressed through employing a Street-Level Bureaucracy perspective, which positions frontline employment services staff as agents who ‘effectively create policy through their practices’ and, in so doing, draws attention to the gap between formal policy as written and policy as produced at the ‘micro-level’ of ‘everyday organizational life’ (RICE 2012; Brodkin 2011). This approach lends itself to studying the market governance of activation by bringing into focus how performance frameworks shape every-day service-delivery in complex ways, including in ways that may negatively impact policy goals. This will be the first study of Ireland’s PES system using such a Street-Level Bureaucracy perspective.

Data on the frontline delivery of employment services will be collected via mixed-methods:

  • Survey research wth frontline staff delivering Job Path, Local Employment Services and Intreo

  • Follow up Interviews with frontline staff deivering segments of Ireland’s mixed-economy of activation

  • Interviews with policy designers and senior officials with DEASP about the design of the commissioning framework and approach to contracting public employment services

  • Interviews with jobseekers and other service-users about the experience of the employment services delivered by Intreo, Job Path and Local Employment Services

The online survey tool that will be used in this project has been widely applied to study the frontline delivery of welfare-to-work in other countries. It has been used to track the impact of policy reforms on frontline service delivery in Australia and the UK for more than 20 years, and also to study employment services reforms in New Zealand and the Netherlands.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 841477.

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