What is it about?

This article explores the delivery of welfare to work programmes in the UK from the perspective of front-line professionals and managers. We consider how these 'street level bureaucrats' adapt to new policy objectives that aim to make welfare to work more inclusive, supportive and sustainable through personalised support for clients and more gradual exposure to training and work experience. However, the lack of fundamental change within the wider labour market and vocational training system means that front-line workers revert to tried and tested interventions that seek to make clients appear 'job-ready' in the eyes of employers. This generally means basic skills interventions, confidence building, and showing the 'right attitude' in an interview.

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Why is it important?

Our research shows that despite repeated waves of policy reform from the top down, welfare to work in the UK still aims to move people quickly into work (of any type and quality) through a mixture of low cost employability interventions and the threat of welfare sanctions. This is because the predominant focus is on so-called supply side issues of individual skills and 'attitude' rather than investing in strong systems of social protection and adult education, and seeking to reform the broader labour market structures that create and sustain poor quality jobs. This study highlights how front-line professionals navigate the complexities and harsh realities of welfare to work, and develop work routines and networks that enable them to cope with ambiguity and change.


This was an interesting project to work on as the managers and commissioners of the welfare to work programme we studied were convinced that it would be transformative for service users and for welfare professionals who would be given increased freedom and flexibility to design new pathways into work. However, the need to move service users quickly through the programme and to supply local employers with motivated and 'job ready' candidates meant that the social aims of the programme were steadily made subordinate to operational and financial demands.

Mathew Johnson
University of Manchester

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Swimming against the tide? Street-level bureaucrats and the limits to inclusive active labour market programmes in the UK, Human Relations, September 2021, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/00187267211045037.
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