Connecting People with Jobs: Considering the bigger and smaller picture
Authors: Kate Summers
16 July 2014
Yesterday (Tuesday 15 July) the OECD launched its latest report, ‘Connecting People with Jobs: Activation Policies in the United Kingdom’ at The Work Foundation. The report lays out the current job activation landscape in the UK, providing a detailed overview and assessment of current UK policies. It focuses on the latest developments in UK activation policies, namely Universal Credit and the Work Programme. Recommendations centre around evaluating and addressing the disincentives to work created by Universal Credit, improving the Work Programme, and placing a higher emphasis on the quality of job matches. The main recommendations can be read here.
The report and its recommendations are predicated on the idea that the UK has been at the forefront of activation policies, and now needs to fine tune its most recent initiatives in order to successfully achieve higher employment rates. This reading of the current situation and the analytic approach in the report can be enhanced by considering the assumptions that an activation approach is built upon, as well as how individuals receiving benefits experience these policies day to day.
The OECD’s report appears to view the rise of activation policies as a phenomenon whose underlying rationale is apolitical or uncontroversial. However, the increasingly widespread use of activation policies (beginning with the Anglo-Saxon welfare systems of the USA and the UK) as a response to high levels of structural unemployment brings new ideas about the goals of public policy and the social rights of citizens. There are also those who more clearly oppose the rationale of activation policies, arguing that they are both economically unsustainable and ethically unacceptable in their current form, and that a ‘life first’ rather than a ‘work first’ approach to work is needed.
The OECD’s findings can also be enhanced with a more qualitative approach to the issue. To understand the incentives and disincentives to work one must understand in detail the motives of the people being affected. The OECD’s analysis tends to follow an approach which overemphasises peoples’ rationality and downplays other factors affecting their preferences. This approach may underestimate, for example, the social ties and moral and social responsibilities that mothers feel when they are making decisions about childcare (the report recommends that discussing childcare should be the norm for Jobcentre Plus staff and that suitable and affordable childcare should be pursued). Another example is if one takes the report’s recommendation to increase conditionality in order to counter the disincentives to work introduced by Universal Credit. The recommendation is in danger of losing its bite when one considers that many claimants have little knowledge of the sanctioning system, meaning a disconnect between their behaviour and the sanction is created.
The OECD’s report offers a consistent and rigorous analysis of activation policies in the UK. Adding the further dimensions outlined above may have resulted in the work being unwieldy. However, to truly understand activation policies, one must consider the assumptions that underpin them, as well as how they play out in the lives of the people affected by them.
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