Reforming welfare to work

How have reforms affected employment services policy and delivery? This project examines the shift from the welfare state to policies of mutual obligation that provide incentives to unemployed individuals to seek work or training.

Professors Jenny Lewis and Mark Considine with Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis, upon receiving the Jan Kooiman Prize for the best research published in the journal Public Management Review in 2012.

It is led by chief investigators Professors Jenny Lewis and Mark Considine of the Faculty of Art’s School of Social and Political Sciences and Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan of the University of New South Wales. They have been complemented by international collaborators in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, local PhD researchers, and Dr Phuc Nguyen as statistician.

The project began in 1998 and compares Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands to understand how governance of the sector has changed, how policymaking is understood and reformed, and the degree to which the state is involved in delivery of services or in regulating private delivery. In particular it emphasises the experiences of frontline staff within employment agencies and how reforms have affected their delivery of services.

The project is based on data compiled across the last two decades, particularly through surveys of 1,000–2,000 frontline staff in 1998, 2008, 2012, and a fourth survey to be conducted in 2016. These surveys are, in Professor Lewis’s words: “one of the backbones of the project”.

They deliver an understanding of the caseload of frontline staff, their work pressures, and how they see their role.

The 2016 study will focus on Australia and the UK. The research to date has shown that the Australian and British systems have become more similar, but with one key distinction:

“Australia and the UK look to each other... but there is the main difference that Australia no longer has a public provider.” Professor Lewis,

Hence there is mutual influence but inevitable divergence.

A series of Australian Research Council grants have supported the project. The most recent, a Linkage Grant, involves two peak employment service organisations and one service provider: Jobs Australia (which encompasses the not-for-profit sector), National Employment Services Authority (which covers all providers), and Westgate Community Initiatives Group (a service provider in Melbourne’s inner west). These organisations value a long-term perspective on staff trends, and facilitate the involvement of frontline staff in the research.

The project has had a number of significant outcomes. Most recently, Oxford University Press published Getting Welfare to Work in 2015, a book authored by the three chief investigators in Australia and their Dutch colleague, A/Prof. Els Sol, which brings together all the research conducted since 1998. Professor Considine and Dr O’Sullivan also oversaw an edited collection, Contracting-out Welfare Services, published by Wiley in 2015.

The project will continue into the future, analysing welfare reform in real time. Professor Lewis emphasises that this is possible on account of the strength of the partnerships with industry partners.

“It is really an unusual thing. Most research projects you do, you do for a number of years and then move on. It is a testament to this being an interesting area and to us having strong relationships with our partners. They really see the value of what we are doing, and so they do not have to have their arm twisted to participate.” Professor Lewis