Accountability in Personalised Supported Activation Services

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Suzan Mbatudde Skjold and Kjetil Grimastad Lundberg. Click here to access the article.

As a response to persistent unemployment and marginalisation of persons with complex support needs, welfare states have intensified their policy initiatives towards people who are considered not in education, work, or training, and who may have both health and other challenges that limit their access to paid employment. These are considered to need help beyond the standard services that welfare states offer to the unemployed.

To support their transition into work, innovative measures are implemented to incorporate structural corrections into the work inclusion equation. Key among these measures, are supported employment-based approaches. At the core of supported employment lies a double aim: that of work-first thinking, but also an inbuilt mechanism that makes human capital development crucial as a way of establishing sustainable employment.  Personalised services are hoped to, on the one hand, lead to better coordination of jobseeker needs, and on the other, enable long term job results, that lead to sustainable welfare states. Our recent article addresses how frontline workers in three welfare offices implementing a supported employment-based activation measure, Extended Follow-Up, in the Norwegian labour and welfare administration respond and align themselves to personalisation in the face of top-down demands for accountability. We examine ways in which frontline workers in this programme confront the top-down demands for accountability while attempting to deliver personalised services to both jobseekers and employers.

Our findings are based on interviews with specialist social workers that focus on rapid transition into work for jobseekers, through applying principles of Supported Employment within the Norwegian labour and welfare administration. This approach combines the focus on rapid work insertion, while also considering the individual’s situation. It also relies on close cooperation between the jobseeker, social worker, and employer as a way of establishing long term connection to the job market. It emphasises the relational aspect in job-seeker frontline worker interaction, as a way of identifying a matching employment opportunity. It can thus be seen as a more innovative way of delivering services that contradicts one size fits all solutions that have previously been implemented. 

Our point of departure is that personalised activation through supported employment redefines the roles of frontline workers, and thereby the expectations that those they follow up, and those employers they collaborate with in the local labour market have of them. This approach has also redefined the roles and expectations placed on frontline workers in labour inclusion, not least because they are combined with rigorous accountability requirements. 

Yet, as we argue, the imposition of top-down accountability imposes a standardising effect, that has implications for the conduct of work integration by frontline workers. This was illustrated by the different approaches that frontline workers in our study adopted in responding to accountability measures. Through reporting (reflecting a compliance approach to accountability), mitigating (which we see as a coping approach to accountability) and reframing (as a street level approach to accountability), frontline workers produce different versions of supported employment, that on the one end curtail, while on the other produce innovative activation.

Our study’s contribution lies in its reformulation of accountability away from its usual location as top-down compliance, to that of behaviours of account-giving. This approach is useful in understanding the behaviour of frontline workers in everyday practice. Such an understanding brings an elaboration of how policy formulations and intent may be interpreted and opens the policy-black box through laying bare its implications on street level practice

Some of our respondents for example, instead of being framed only as rule followers or rule breakers in their approach to accountability requirements, show active agency that on the surface seems to contradict policy directives, yet contributing to policy goals through their modified input. Our findings suggest that the ability to subvert these accountability requirements, instead of accepting them as inevitable, has the potential to empower employment specialists to deliver personalised labour inclusion for both jobseekers and employers. Given that frontline workers involved in innovative and immersive work situations may find it unproductive to account for the multiple relations that cannot be put into numbers, policy makers should therefore reconsider how parameters of accountability may cause a disconnect between frontline workers’ experiences and their day-to-day practices, affecting the quality of services offered in trying to establish lasting employment relationships.

From our findings, we also see the contradictory nature of accountability instruments within personalised activation services, that tends to ignore context and person specific circumstances they are supposed to address. Our study therefore acknowledges the crucial position that frontline workers’ experiences occupy in improving activation services, and how their practice-generated knowledge may hold the key to effective activation of the long-term unemployed. Third, returning to the need for personalised activation practices, we reiterate in our study that frontline workers’ practice-generated knowledge should be considered beyond schemes highlighting control and reporting.

About the authors

Suzan Mbatudde Skjold is a Doctoral Researcher at Western Norway University of Applied Science.

Kjetil Grimastad Lundberg is Professor at Western Norway University of Applied Science.


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