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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    Are policy tools and governance modes coupled? Analysing welfare-to-work reform at the frontline
    Lewis, JM ; Nguyen, P ; Considine, M (TAYLOR & FRANCIS LTD, 2021-09-11)
    ABSTRACT This paper considers the link between policy tools and governance modes – the characteristic ways frontline staff are meta-governed. It asks: Are substantive policy tools coupled to procedural tools (governance modes) that can guide local service delivery agencies and the work of individuals delivering welfare services? The substantive policy tools in this case are those typically utilised to reform welfare-to-work services: contracting-out of services and competitive tendering, and the regulation of quasi-markets. These are hypothesised to flow through to procedural policy tools in the form of corporate and market incentives and regulatory (bureaucratic) methods that shape how work is done (governance modes), privileging certain practice orientations at the frontline. Policy makers seek to shape these meta-level governance modes because they should result in systemic change, based on a reconfiguration of policy actors and their interrelationships, for both service delivery agencies and the individuals working in them. We identified four ideal-type governance modes (bureaucratic, corporate, market and network) and tracked which of these were dominant in-practice at the frontline in Australia and the UK at two levels: office and personal, at four points in time (1998, 2008, 2012 and 2016). We found that the dominant mode of organisation at the office level was corporate, followed by bureaucratic in both nations. But the bureaucratic mode had grown in strength over time, particularly in Australia, and as a personal priority for staff, as re-regulation occurred. The results indicate a coupling between substantive policy tools and governance modes at the frontline of welfare-to-work.
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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.
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    The Category Game and its impact on Street-Level Bureaucrats and Jobseekers: An Australian Case Study
    O’Sullivan, S ; McGann, M ; Considine, M (Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2019)
    A key question concerning the marketisation of employment services is the interaction between performance management systems and frontline client-selection practices. While the internal sorting of clients for employability by agencies has received much attention, less is known about how performance management shapes official categorisation practices at the point of programme referral. Drawing on case studies of four Australian agencies, this study examines the ways in which frontline staff contest how jobseekers are officially classified by the benefit administration agency. With this assessment pivotal in determining payment levels and activity requirements, we find that reassessing jobseekers so they are moved to a more disadvantaged category, suspended, or removed from the system entirely have become major elements of casework. These category manoeuvres help to protect providers from adverse performance rankings. Yet, an additional consequence is that jobseekers are rendered fully or partially inactive, within the context of a system designed to activate.
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    Governance, Boards of Directors and the Impact of Contracting on Not-for-profit Organizations - An Australian Study
    Considine, M ; O'Sullivan, S ; Phuc, N (WILEY-BLACKWELL, 2014-04-01)
    This article investigates strategic changes in the governance of not-for-profit (NFP) boards in response to Australia’s fully contracted employment services system. Of interest are changes in board demography, behaviour, procedures and dynamics, with special attention to the impact of those changes on boards’ identity as a representation of community interests. As Australia is in the vanguard of social service contracting, the Australian experience affords insight into the impact of contracting upon the identity of the NFP sector. We find that NFP directors operating in this quasi-market have come to define board ‘professionalism’ as the main strategic move to accommodate the increasingly commercial and competitive nature of contracting. Boards have adopted a more business-like view of how their agency should operate, changed their board’s skill set and utilized strategic recruitment processes, including selecting new board members based on perceived skill deficiencies of the current board and paying board members for their service. NFP boards have also introduced more comprehensive induction, training and evaluation systems. These findings provide Australian policymakers with evidence of the cultural impact of service delivery reforms on NFP agencies. They also afford leaders of NFPs an opportunity to reflect on important changes in the governance of their organizations, including the potential for ‘mission drift’ and loss of local forms of legitimacy.
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    New public management and welfare-to-work in Australia: Comparing the reform agendas of the ALP and the Coalition
    Considine, M ; O'Sullivan, S ; Phuc, N (Taylor & Francis (Routledge), 2014-09-01)
    Since the 1990s, the adoption of new public management (NPM) as a management philosophy has translated into multiple waves of reform in the employment services sector in Australia, namely Working Nation (1994–96), Job Network (JN: 1996–2009) and Job Services Australia (JSA: 2009–present). Each wave has sought to improve the preceding policy. In this article, we examine changes implemented during the Rudd/Gillard Labor governments. Using government policy documents and survey data from frontline employment services staff, we compare JSA to JN against five benchmarks. Our data indicate that JSA has generated modest improvement. JSA is also a system with less emphasis on strong forms of sanctioning. Our combined data suggest that policy actors operating under NPM conditions are indeed able to influence specific aspects of frontline practice, but they must spend great effort to do so and must accept new imperfections as a consequence.
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    Mission-drift? The Third Sector and the pressure to be business-like: Evidence from Job Services Australia
    Considine, M ; O'Sullivan, SB ; Nguyen, (Australian and New Zealand Third Sector Research, 2014)
    Becoming more businesslike is seen by many not-for-profit (NFP) agencies as necessary for survival, if not expansion, under the conditions required by New Public Management (NPM). Charged with delivering social services in a competitive environment, NFP agencies must often compete with each other, and with for-profit (FP) organisations, in order to obtain and retain government contracts. While some things are known about why NFP agencies emulate FPs, and the means by which they do so, little is known about whether adopting a more businesslike approach yields benefits. In this study we compare attitudes to profit maximisation against other client-oriented goals among NFP agencies delivering contracted employment services in Australia. We find that profit-maximising attitudes have increased dramatically between 1998 and 2012. Yet despite this, we find no correlation between a profit-orientated disposition and the rate at which services improve for clients. We conclude that while becoming more businesslike might be beneficial for a host of reasons, it does not appear to help agencies meet their key performance indicator: achieving positive outcomes for those they seek to serve.