Can Welfare Conditionality Be Balanced With Co-Creation?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. Click here to access the article.

Sometimes movies can capture a social problem more accurately than any written words. If you have seen the movie “Daniel Blake” by Ken Loach, the viewer shares the frustration of Daniels when he writes “I Daniel Blake” on a jobcentre’s wall. He follows these words by a demand for his appeal date so he can rightfully be awarded his disability allowance. In his contact with the jobcentre prior to this, he is treated with both rigidity and absurdity and without anyone at the jobcentre taking his competencies and needs into account.

The movie and its critique of welfare conditionality applied on vulnerable groups are obviously both political and normative. It does however capture a general perception that is probably less politically contested, namely how badly the citizens in contact with public employment services are treated. Many services and activities become meaningless and are not effective, fair, responsive or respectful. No one seems to care much about the citizen’s participation, knowledge about own situation, and how this can qualify the services and the value it ultimately has for the citizen.

In this article, we take our point of departure in this lack of user involving services while still recognising the legitimate demands for conditionality and focus on employment. The key question is welfare conditionality can be balanced with co-creation. This raises several questions: do conditionality and co-creation exclude one another? Can public welfare agencies, which are organised according to standardised services, be changed to become more responsive and user involving? Are frontline workers capable of delivering meaningful and responsive services while being held accountable for preventing fraud and free riding? Moreover, can citizens change their perspective on services if they are approached with trust and active participation?

Answering these questions calls for local innovation in social and employment services, which formed the acronym for our LISES-project funded by Innovation Fund Denmark (2016-2020). In this project, social science researchers have worked with six Danish municipalities to test if and how co-creation can take place in a regime based upon welfare conditionality. After four years of intensive cooperation between researchers and local employment services, and after collecting a huge amount of data from these innovative processes, we have both positive and negative messages regarding co-creation in a regime of welfare conditionality.

The main dilemma, probably unsurprisingly given the nature of conditionality, seems to be that access to income and services is often conditioned by citizens’ participation in activities that they find meaningless. Also, the overall goal of the services – “becoming employed” – is defined beforehand which limits the citizen’s options for defining their own preferences. Furthermore, citizens rarely have formal decision power or control of resources. Hence, there is a lot of ground for distrust between the system and the citizen and severe obstacles for genuine co-creation.

However, our study of municipalities trying to incorporate co-creation in such an environment of conditionality shows that it is indeed possible to move services considerably in this direction. The leeway for doing this is by opening up the meeting with citizens for genuine negotiation of which actions to take and by acknowledging that the citizen’s own knowledge and preferences are of immense importance for a successful outcome.

Our study shows that this requires simultaneous and interrelated actions in various contexts. Firstly, the frontline worker needs decision power when meeting the citizen, continuity and predictability in services, good opportunities for relational continuity, relevant and accessible services as well as offers targeted the vulnerable group (in order to make negotiation possible). Secondly, the frontline workers need the necessary skills for making user-involvement happen not least in relation to communicating with citizens. Thirdly, moving in the direction of co-creation depends on interrelated changes of political and organisational strategies (and the creation of legitimacy for such a change), management strategies, services across welfare service sectors, departments and units (making more integrated services) and the cooperation with the surrounding society, especially by making the employers responsible and active partners. How this can be made possible in practice is further described in the article.

In the article, we further demonstrate that we may need to reconsider the common understanding of welfare-conditionality (and the inherent focus on work) as incompatible with co-creation. Our case demonstrate that some extent of conditionality, focus on employment and co-creation can take place if the employment services are developed to embrace this.

Further research and jointly research-practice initiated innovation processes are needed to confirm and develop this conclusion and we will continue with this work in our newly formed research centre supported by The Maersk Foundation (Den A.P. Moellerske Stoettefond) and a number of municipalities. We believe co-creation will become an important research topic in years to come.

About the authors

Flemming Larsen is Professor at Aalborg University.

Dorte Caswell is Professor at Aalborg University.


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