School of Social and Political Sciences - Research Publications

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    Can Robots Understand Welfare? Exploring Machine Bureaucracies in Welfare-to-Work
    Considine, M ; Mcgann, M ; Ball, S ; Nguyen, P (CAMBRIDGE UNIV PRESS, 2022-03-16)
    Abstract The exercise of administrative discretion by street-level workers plays a key role in shaping citizens’ access to welfare and employment services. Governance reforms of social services delivery, such as performance-based contracting, have often been driven by attempts to discipline this discretion. In several countries, these forms of market governance are now being eclipsed by new modes of digital governance that seek to reshape the delivery of services using algorithms and machine learning. Australia, a pioneer of marketisation, is one example, proposing to deploy digitalisation to fully automate most of its employment services rather than as a supplement to face-to-face case management. We examine the potential and limits of this project to replace human-to-human with ‘machine bureaucracies’. To what extent are welfare and employment services amenable to digitalisation? What trade-offs are involved? In addressing these questions, we consider the purported benefits of machine bureaucracies in achieving higher levels of efficiency, accountability, and consistency in policy delivery. While recognising the potential benefits of machine bureaucracies for both governments and jobseekers, we argue that trade-offs will be faced between enhancing the efficiency and consistency of services and ensuring that services remain accessible and responsive to highly personalised circumstances.
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    Contracting personalization by results: Comparing marketization reforms in the UK and Australia
    Considine, M ; O'Sullivan, S ; McGann, M ; Nguyen, P (Wiley, 2020-04-07)
    Market instruments are increasingly used to drive innovation and efficiency in public services. Meanwhile, many governments recognize the need for services to be more personalized and ‘user-centred’. This was a key aim of major welfare-to-work reforms in both the UK and Australia over the past decade, which sought to achieve personalization through increasing service delivery by for-profit providers, contracted via Payment-by-Results. Drawing on three surveys of frontline staff, we show the impact of recent UK and Australian marketization reforms on frontline practices to consider whether the reform mix of increased commercial provision tied to Payment-by-Results has enhanced service personalization. We find that the UK's ‘black box’ model was associated with some increase in frontline discretion, but little evidence that this enhanced personalization, either compared to previous programmes or to Australia's more regulated system.
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    Locked-in or Locked-out: Can a Public Services Market Really Change?
    CONSIDINE, M ; O’SULLIVAN, S ; MCGANN, M ; NGUYEN, P (Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2020)
    Australia’s welfare-to-work system has been subject to ongoing political contestation and policy reform since the 1990s. In this paper we take a big picture look at the Australian system over time, re-visiting our earlier analysis of the impact of marketisation on flexibility at the frontline over the first ten years of the Australian market in employment services. That analysis demonstrated that marketisation had failed to deliver the service flexibility intended through contracting-out, and had instead produced market herding around a common set of standardised frontline practices. In the interim, there have been two further major redesigns of the Australian system at considerable expense to taxpayers. Re-introducing greater flexibility and service tailoring into the market has been a key aim of these reforms. Calling on evidence from an original, longitudinal survey of frontline employment service staff run in 2008, 2012 and 2016, this paper considers how the Australian market has evolved over its second decade. We find remarkable consistency over time and, indeed, evidence of deepening organisational convergence. We conclude that, once in motion, isomorphic pressures towards standardisation quickly get locked into quasi-market regimes; at least when these pressures occur in low-trust contracting environments.
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    Welfare Conditionality and Blaming the Unemployed
    McGann, M ; Nguyen, P ; Considine, M (SAGE PUBLICATIONS INC, 2020-03-01)
    Welfare recipients are increasingly subject to various forms of work-related conditionality that, critics argue, presuppose a “pathological” theory of unemployment that stigmatizes welfare recipients as de-motivated to work. Drawing on surveys of Australian frontline employment services staff, we examine the extent to which caseworkers attribute being on benefits to recipients’ lack of motivation, and whether this problem figuration of unemployment is associated with a “harder edged” approach to activation. We find that it is, although it is diminishing. This reflects how frontline discretion has become more routinized from the application of more intensive forms of performance monitoring and compliance auditing.