Municipal activation policy in sweden street level workers and the production of activation
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Municipal Activation Policy in Sweden: Street-Level Workers and the ‘Production’ of Activation. Katarina H. Thoren The “Activation and Security” conference, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, March 20-21, 2009. ”Municipal Activation Policy”.

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Municipal Activation Policy in Sweden: Street-Level Workers and the ‘Production’ of Activation

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Municipal Activation Policy in Sweden:Street-Level Workers and the ‘Production’ of Activation

Katarina H. Thoren

The “Activation and Security” conference,

Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, March 20-21, 2009

”Municipal Activation Policy”

  • Interventions and requirements social assistance recipients need to perform in return for financial support

    • Municipal responsibility

    • Linked to social assistance system

    • Funding through municipal revenues

    • Large variations between municipalities

  • Large growth of municipal activation during economic recession in the 1990s

    • Stricter entitlements rules for governmental income protection systems

    • High unemployment rates and increased need for social assistance

  • A parallel system to the national labour market policy system which has:

    • Public Employment Services

    • Governmental funding

    • Several national level ALMP programs

Study Design

  • A case study of two municipalities in Sweden

    • The social assistance administrations

    • The local activation programmes

  • Observations of the daily work in these four sub-settings

    • Interviews with local politicians and managers

    • Analysis of policy and programme documents

  • Research took place in 2002-2003

  • More than 400 hours of observations and 90 client meetings

Street-level bureaucracy theory

(Michael Lipsky,1980)

Front-line actor perspective on policy implementation

Street-level bureaucrats are important agents in the social political process.

‘Produce’ policy through coping strategies/mechanisms.

High levels of discretion, which make street-level bureaucrats work difficult to control and monitor

Resources and incentives at the organisational level structure the street-level bureaucrats work

New Institutional Theory

(Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Powell & DiMaggio, 1991)

Organisational level perspective on organisational behaviour and organisational change

Organisations are dependant on the surrounding environment

Organisations adjust to institutional pressures in order to ”survive” and obtain resources and legitimacy

Different forms of myths and ceremonies are developed in order to maintain and uphold the legitimate ideas

Analytic Perspectives

Formal Activation Policy Context

  • No formal activation policy legislation – indirectly regulated through the Social Service Act and social assistance

  • Activation requirements is something municipalities can chose to have or not to have

  • Unclear policy objectives in the legislation

    • Increase employability

    • Flexible-tailor made solutions

    • Mandatory requirements in return for support

Local Activation Context

  • Local politicians are responsible for the municipal social service organisation

  • Managers operate under the local political board when managing social assistance administration and activation programmes

  • Two type of workers involved in the practical activation policy implementation:

    • Social workers make assessments about the social assistance claim and refers clients to the local activation programmes

    • Activation workers (often without social work training) are responsible to carry out the actual activation interventions

Supportive objectives:

Provide unemployed individuals with support and services

Activation as flexible and tailor-made support

Skills-enhancing activity

Combat social exclusion and passivity

Not suitable for individuals with large social and personal difficulties

Additional activation objectives:

A need to decrease social assistance costs by implementing local activation requirements

A need to change deficient individual behaviours

The work line” is important (i.e. something for something) and no passive income support to unemployed individuals

A work-first approach since a job is better than social assistance dependency

Activation is “successful”

Local Politicians’ and Managers’ Responses

  • ”Social assistance clients wants to sleep in the mornings and get used with lazy days … the regular labor market and a job starts to feel very remote for them… but we can help people to change such behaviors by increasing client requirements and responsibilities.” (Local politician)

  • ”When I met old clients in the subway or in the streets I can see in the clients’ eyes that the program had been good for them. They are now looking proud and with a better self-esteem compared to when they entered the program.” (Programme manager)

Local Street-Level Responses

Social workers’ and activation workers’ responses:

  • It’s a pressures to lower social assistance costs

  • Everybody must be activated because this is the local policy”

  • Exceptions difficult to perform as it required extra efforts from the workers

  • Activation is always the best solution – although other professional assessments were made

  • Activation as a control and gate-keeping function

    • To limit access to social assistance

    • To monitor work motivation

  • ”I select all unemployed clients as long as they don’t have a doctor’s certificate or just can’t work … I don’t do many exceptions … for me, Jobbcentrum works as a control function to see if they are … eligible for social assistance … it’s the policy.” (Social worker)

  • ”It’s supposed to be an individual assessment behind the policy, but the local model restrains me … and it is limited room for exceptions and the flexibility is small.” (Social worker)

Local Street-Level Responses cont.

  • Simplified and perfunctory assessments of clients’ employment situation

  • ”One size fits all” – similar activation interventions for most clients

  • Activation as a very passive intervention as activities created “lock-in” effects

  • Creaming strategies when selecting among the clients

    • Based on resource availability

    • Normative assumptions about the clients

  • Categorisation strategies and sorting practices based on normative ideas about clients’ personal characteristics and not employment needs

    • Serious/unserious

    • Motivated/unmotivated

  • ”The programs need to be mandatory and we need to monitor clients as it creates a method and an incentive to leave passivity and marginalization by having a structured and active day … the staff should not activate them because it’s up to the clients themselves to find a job. If it’s boring to be here it would motivate them to find a job faster so that they can leave.” (Activation programme manager)

  • “… it’s up to the clients to help themselves … they must ask for our support. (Activation worker)

  • “… sitting here is a function in itself … they see other clients that eventually got a job or practical training … they also see that we see them and we can’t monitor them if they are sitting at home.” (Activation worker)

  • “We don’t want structured services or activities here because we want clients to ask for help themselves.” (Activation worker)


  • Implementation practices are structured by a number of typical street-level bureaucracy behaviours

    • Creaming, stereotypical categorizations, ad hoc explanations etcetera.

  • But they were also structured by an organisational “culture” formed by the surrounding ideas about social assistance dependency and clients’ lack of work motivation

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