The category game and its impact on street-level bureaucrats and jobseekers: an Australian case study

Stream: Social security, conditionality and risk
Date: Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Time: 1.35 pm – 3.15 pm


In several OECD countries, including Australia, welfare-to-work delivery is contracted-out to private agencies competing in quasi-markets for clients, contracts, and outcome payments. But a key question regarding this ‘market governance’ of activation concerns the way accountability systems shape frontline decision processes, and whether providers paid by results will target only those for whom outcomes are easier to achieve. While the internal sorting of clients for employability has received much attention in studies of quasi-markets in employment services, less is known about how performance management shapes the official profiling, categorization and targeting of recipients for activation at the point of programme referral.

Drawing on case studies of four agencies in the Australian quasi-market, this study examines the ways in which frontline staff work to contest and revise how jobseekers are officially classified by the benefit administration agency. With this assessment pivotal in determining the level of payments that agencies can receive, and the activity requirements that clients must meet, we find that reassessing jobseekers so they are moved to a more disadvantaged category, exempted from conditionality requirements, or removed from the system entirely, have become major elements of casework. These category manoeuvres have multiple effects. They may result in some clients being shielded from harsh sanctions. They also protect providers against adverse performance rankings by the purchaser. Yet, an additional consequence is that jobseekers are rendered fully or partially inactive, within the context of a system designed and mandated to activate.


Siobhan O'Sullivan (Presenter), UNSW Sydney
Dr Siobhan O'Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of New South Wales and a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She specialises in the study of welfare states, especially their delivery of employment services and 'mission drift'. Her recent research focuses on the delivery of contracted employment services. She also has an interest in animal welfare legislation, ethics and environmental matters.

Michael McGann, University of Melbourne
Dr Michael McGann is a Research Fellow in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His experience in social policy extends beyond academia, including working as research officer with the Parliament of Victoria’s Family and Community Development Committee, and as a Research Fellow with the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Michael’s research addresses the intersection between employment and disadvantage, focusing on the labour market experiences of vulnerable groups such as mature-age workers and the long-term unemployed.

Mark Considine, University of Melbourne
Professor Mark Considine is Provost of the University of Melbourne. He is one of Australia’s most respected political scientists, with a career spanning both academic research and applied policy work for government and civil society organisations. Mark has been an advisor to the OECD Local Economic and Employment Development Program, and has worked with state and federal governments in the design of social services and strategies for place-based innovation. He assisted the Brumby Government with its review of employment programs and was seconded by the Gillard Government to the departmental Working Group to review the jobactive Star Ratings system.