The Active Subjects of Welfare Reform: a Street-Level Comparison of Employment Services in Australia and Denmark

Greg Marston

Abstract

This paper explores the similarities and differences between Denmark and Australia in adopting welfare reform activation measures in the field of employment services. In Australia and Denmark the discourse of welfare reform centres the 'activation' of citizens through 'mutual obligation' type requirements. Through various forms of case management, unemployed individuals are encouraged to act upon themselves in creating the right set of ethical dispositions congruent with 'active citizenship'. At the same time any resistance to heightened conditionality on the part of the unemployed person is dealt with through a range of coercive and disciplinary techniques. A comparative case study between these two countries allows us to consider how similar ideas, discourse and principles are shaping policy implementation in countries that have very different welfare state trajectories and institutional arrangements for the delivery of social welfare generally and employment services specifically. And in research terms, a comparison between a Nordic welfare state and an Anglo-Saxon welfare state provides an opportunity to critically examine the utility of 'welfare regime' type analyses and the neo-liberal convergence thesis in comparative welfare research. On the basis of empirical analysis, the article concludes that a single focus on abstract typologies or political ideologies is not very helpful in getting the measure of welfare reform (or any other major policy development for that matter). At the 'street-level' of policy practice there is considerably more ambiguity, incoherence and contradiction than is suggested by linear accounts of welfare reform.

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