Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Room to Move? Professional Discretion at the Frontline of Welfare-to-Work

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Room to Move? Professional Discretion at the Frontline of Welfare-to-Work

Article excerpt

Illuminating the day-to-day operations of policy allows decision makers and researchers to engage in candid evaluations of the developing welfare-to-work policy model and the politics and principles that inform it. We focus on policy implementation from the perspective of front-line workers--in this case social workers employed by Centrelink. Specifically we examine the conditions of exercising discretion in relation to the implementation of welfare-to-work policies in Australia. This unfolding policy agenda provides an opportunity, to examine how professional discretion is exercised in policy implementation within a statutory authority responsible for administering income support payments to hundreds of thousands of Australians. These issues are salient given the recent introduction of legislation to extend the welfare-to-work agenda to both sole parents and people with disabilities from July 2006. In implementing welfare reform Centrelink staff will have responsibility for interpreting guidelines, making assessments and administering activity and administrative breaches and suspensions. The implementation of this policy agenda raises important ethical issues about how front-line workers perceive their role and exercise discretion in implementing controversial policy.

A focus on professional discretion has its origins in the seminal work by Lipsky (1980) who proposed that street level work is an important, but often unrecognised locus of policy making. The literature on street-level bureaucracy includes arguments for and against the exercise of street level discretion and identifies the constraints within which discretion operates. Brodkin (2000: 7) argues that '...discretion is neither good nor bad but the "wild card" of implementation, likely to produce different results in different organizational contexts'. Brodkin's point about differing results is important for our focus as we examine the changing organisational structure and policy goals in the transition from welfare to workfare over the past decade. The first part of the paper briefly traces the policy and organisational context of welfare-to-work policies. The second part of the paper reports on previous research and preliminary findings from a current research project (1) examining professional discretion and the perceptions of Centrelink social workers in implementing welfare reform in Australia.

The Policy Context: From Welfare to Workfare

Australia's income support system has always had elements of 'mutual obligation'. However, the past fifteen to twenty years has seen a significant shift in Australia's income support provisions and employment services. The most significant shifts began with the 1989 Social Security" Review when the 'work' test was replaced by the 'activity' test (Ziguras et al., 2003). The change in the design and rationale of the income support system meant that social security was no longer a system of maintaining the incomes of those out of work; it became a system principally designed to encourage people into work.

As part of that program, employment services were reformed through the Keating Government's Working Nation policy package. Working Nation, introduced under the banner of 'reciprocal obligation', led to the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) contracting out specialized training and labour market programs to non-governmental providers (Eardley et al., 2001). In 1996, the Liberal-National Coalition was elected into Federal Government. The change of government led to further reforms in the area of social security and employment services as reciprocal obligation was replaced by 'mutual obligation'--a more demanding form of 'obligation' on the part of the unemployed. The political justification for mutual obligation policy in Australia draws on 'New Paternalism' as articulated by Lawrence Mead (1997: 32):

 
   To live effectively, people need personal restraint to achieve 
   their own long-run goals. … 
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