How Placement Advisors Use Enhanced Discretion in Public Employment Services

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Carolin Freier and Monika Senghaas. Click here to access the article.

Activation policies focus on promoting employability and labour market participation, emphasising the jobseekers’ active involvement. The public employment services (PES), in particular the counselling and placement of jobseekers undertaken there, constitute a core element of delivering social policy. According to Michael Lipsky employees of the PES are street-level bureaucrats who shape activation policy on the ground. In Lipsky’s analysis, discretion is used as an encompassing term referring to street-level bureaucrats’ decisions and actions “determining the nature, amount, and quality of benefits and sanctions provided by their agencies”.

Drawing on the literature on frontline discretion in activation policies, we examine how employment agency staff use an expanded scope of discretionary power within the framework of an innovation project. What are their goals and what dilemmas do they face?

Focusing on the perspective of PES employees and reconstructing their logic of action, we find that it is crucial for this practice to be legitimised in the organisation. We conclude that PES staff with greater discretionary powers, enabling organisational norms and a favourable labour market situation are conducive to delivering tailor-made services and placement in stable and durable jobs.

While other studies look at the discretion exercised by street-level bureaucrats, particularly in terms of consistent rule settings, our study focuses on a setting which permits enhanced discretion in the course of an innovation project. Due to the fact that placement staff were actively involved in initiating improvements, the project design allows us to observe what changes placement staff undertake when they are granted enhanced discretionary authority.

Following Taylor and Kelly, we describe in a more fine-grained perspective different elements of discretion in our analysis: task, rule and value discretion. PES advisors have relatively broad autonomy in their daily tasks to decide which placement services they provide to whom and when. This discretion arises from the complexity of the tasks and the resulting lack of complete managerial control (task discretion). Despite the existence of legal, fiscal and organisational constraints, placement advisors determine the type and frequency of client support through their interpretation of the regulations (rule discretion). Furthermore, based on their professional knowledge and professional codes of conduct, advisors make choices about the objectives of activation and the practical application of social policy (value discretion). Moreover, we can reconstruct which factors foster or hinder the use of value discretion in particular when implementing innovation ideas.

Qualitative data that were gathered to evaluate an innovation project conducted by the Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) form the empirical basis of the article. The article focusses on semi-structured interviews and group discussions with skilled personnel at three participating agencies from a broader sample.

Conditions for innovations to benefit jobseekers, employers and advisors

Based on the street-level bureaucracies approach we showed that frontline workers used their discretion to achieve personalised services and placements in lasting employment. In particular, they use value discretion to define changes within the job placement services. Our respondents did not see themselves simply as employees of a public authority, but also identified with the concept of tailoring their service to their clients’ needs and reducing pressure. This includes a broader portfolio of service provision as well as more holistic forms of employment services for vulnerable clients. The individualised services, such as the jobcafé, however, also focus on control and do not correspond to an ethical and non-discriminatory conception of social policy.

By developing innovations, advisors have been able to expand their value discretion. However, whether this value discretion was implemented in their everyday tasks depended on several aspects: Illustrating the turning point with regard to the emphasis on stable employment, we show that the use of discretion depends on targeting mechanisms within the organisation. Taking individual counselling time as an example, we argue that value discretion is more likely to be used if the action is esteemed, especially in the eyes of the manager, and corresponds with organisational norms. In light of the fact that, in the context of New Public Management, established standardisations such as contacts to jobseekers are regarded as a reduction of discretion, advisors reclaimed their discretion in the innovation project.

The thesis presented is that the interplay between PES advisors having greater discretionary powers, changing organisational norms and a tight labour market is beneficial to individualised services supporting placement in lasting and stable employment. We show that changes were accepted more easily when they were recognised and valued within the organisation. The performance management system proved to be an important mechanism for creating and promoting esteem in the organisation. Endowed with greater discretion, the employees interpret “service orientation” as personalised and long-term job placement and orientate their behaviour towards this organisational norm as long as the performance indicator “integration rate” guarantees a good outcome in the monitoring system. The favourable labour market situation reduces the dilemma regarding the conflicting aims of service orientation and the implementation of activation policy.

Beyond the German case, our results suggest that the use of discretion does not depend solely on advisors’ personality traits or social-structural characteristics of the unemployed or their motivation. Structures of New Public Management not only shape advisors’ work on a formal level via bureaucratic procedures, standardisation and managerial control, but also influence professional action on an emotional level via esteem.

About the authors

Carolin Freier is Professor of Sociology and Education at Lutheran University of Applied Sciences, Nuremberg.

Monika Senghaas is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Employment Research, Nuremberg.


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