Locked-in or locked-out: Can a public services market really change?

Stream: Employment services, technology
Date: Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Time: 3.45 pm – 5.05 pm


Australia’s employment services system has been subject to ongoing reform since the Keating Government, evolving from a publically delivered regime, to a system of shared delivery, to an entirely privatized system of market delivery under Job Network. Motivating this transformation was the conviction that marketisation could produce a system that was not only more efficient but also more flexible and better tailored. However, JN failed to produce the flexibility predicted with our comparative research showing increasing levels of standardisation, and loss of differentiation between for-profit and not-for-profit providers as JN matured. In this paper, we take a big picture look at the Australian system over time and whether subsequent redesigns of Australia’s welfare market have been able to arrest the trends towards standardization and market herding characteristic of the JN era. Calling on evidence from surveys tracking the evolution of Australia’s marketised system from JN to Job Services Australia to Jobactive, we find remarkable consistency over time and, indeed, deepening convergence between the practices of for-profit and not-for-profit providers. Overwhelmingly, the picture is of a stable system where the practices of client-facing staff have changed little. This bird’s eye view raises questions about the policy investment that periodically goes into systematically reviewing and trying to impose change on a system that appears largely impervious to change. We argue that system design at the point of privatisation is critically important. Once in motion, isomorphic pressures towards standardization quickly get locked into employment services markets, making subsequent change difficult to achieve.


Michael McGann (Presenter), School of Social and Political Sciences, 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.

Siobhan O'Sullivan, School of Social Sciences, UNSW
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.

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.

Phuc Nguyen, School of Management, La Trobe
Dr Phuc Nguyen is a Lecturer in Management at La Trobe University. Her research interests include the welfare state, employment services delivery, and public services contracting. She also has an interest in supply chain integration and sustainability.