This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to read the Open Access article.
Actors and organisations implementing social and labour market policy have a decisive influence on the way social policy looks in practice. The findings from my research among jobcentre advisors in Germany demonstrate that judgements about an individual client’s deservingness play an important role in the street-level implementation of activation policies. The results provide insights into the normative dimension of frontline work; the analysis identifies relevant decision cues that frontline workers rely on when making moral judgements and investigates what consequences these judgements have for the shape that activation policies take.
Frontline workers in organisations responsible for implementing social and labour market policies typically have considerable leeway for discretionary decision-making. How discretion is used by street-level bureaucrats – a term coined by the political scientist Michael Lipsky – has been a focal point of empirical studies investigating policy delivery at street level. Less attention has been paid to the fact that street-level bureaucrats’ actions also confer moral judgements regarding an individual client’s social worth, as using discretion necessarily involves judgements about questions of value.
The literature provides solid empirical evidence indicating that criteria such as claimants’ control over their situation, their needs and perceived reciprocity serve as heuristics in public judgements about the welfare recipients’ deservingness. I use these criteria identified in research on deservingness as a starting point to analyse how frontline workers in German jobcentres judge their unemployed clients’ deservingness and what impact these judgements have on the shape of activation policies. The analysis draws on interviews conducted with jobcentre advisors as part of a research project on back-to-work agreements. The study concerns Germany’s basic income support scheme, a means-tested unemployment benefit scheme for individuals deemed capable of work.
The interviews suggest that it is common practice among jobcentre advisors to explain to their clients the consequences of non-compliance, particularly in the first meeting. However, advisors vary the intensity of their sanctioning threats according to their judgement of the individual jobseeker. Reciprocity expectations play an important role in these judgements. ‘Motivation’ is a crucial category when judging whether clients meet expectations of reciprocity. Demonstrating initiative and being proactive in developing strategies for employment are powerful cues when it comes to judgements about a client’s motivation, as are compliance with institutional rules, such as submitting documents or bringing them along to meetings. Asked how they would recognise a motivated client, advisors also referred to more general cues, such as a client’s involvement in the conversation.
Situations that arise on the frontline can, however, not be reduced to the dichotomy of motivated versus unmotivated clients. While a client who lacks motivation is deemed to have the potential to end benefit receipt by actively searching for work, in other cases a jobseeker’s unemployment is seen as being caused by circumstances beyond his or her immediate control. Based on their judgement of the extent to which a person is in control of their unemployment, advisors may thus decide to exempt benefit recipients from certain obligations. Jobcentre advisors explain that when counselling clients who are sick or struggling with addiction, a regulatory approach focusing on self-responsibility and threats of sanctions rarely proves useful. The same pattern of argument is found with reference to jobseekers facing specific difficulties on the labour market and restrictions in their job-search activity due to health impairments, personal circumstances or long periods of unemployment.
Jobcentre advisors thus vary the intensity of their ‘demands’ according to whether benefit recipients fulfil reciprocity expectations and are deemed to be in control of their unemployment situation. No consistent evidence across individual cases is found however for whether advisors base their judgements on the criteria of need, attitude and identity – other important decision heuristics identified by research into public judgements regarding deservingness. The category of the perceived outcome emerged as an important factor instead. Whether advisors choose an enabling approach, treat a client routinely or decide to ration services is linked to judgements about the client’s amenability to change and the presumed outcome associated with the allocation of resources such as counselling time or training programmes.
Ultimately, a particularity of street-level judgements is that they are informed by the personal encounter. Frontline workers not only interpret rules and regulations when applying them to individual cases, they also assess individual clients. Experiential cues from a personal meeting, such as a client’s appearance, their involvement in the conversation and their self-presentation, form the basis for interpretation and supplement information provided by the client. In the interviews, frontline workers justify their interpretations on the basis of ‘soft evidence’ by referring to typical patterns of appearance and behaviour.
In line with other studies on the frontline delivery of activation policies, the findings presented in my article stress the multifaceted nature of the frontline delivery of activation policies that encompasses enabling as well as disciplinary features. Frontline workers in jobcentres use their discretionary leeway to decide who should be treated routinely, who deserves a harsher treatment, and who is entitled to a more supportive or enabling treatment. These judgments about ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ clients occur in the interplay between the current normative order and the situation presented to the frontline worker by the individual client. Some criteria applied by the public when judging the extent to which certain individuals or groups can be judged as deserving also provide cues for street-level judgements about what an individual client deserves. In addition, frontline workers use cues that are peculiar to the face-to-face nature of frontline work and judge a client’s deservingness on the basis of generalised expectations about typical clients.
About the author
Monika Senghaas is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Employment Research, Germany