ITEM METADATA RECORD
Title: On the street-level implementation of ambiguous activation policy. How caseworkers reconcile responsibility and autonomy and affect their clients' motivation
Other Titles: De implementatie van ambigu activeringsbeleid op de frontlijn: Hoe bemiddelaars verantwoordelijkheid en autonomie verzoenen en de motivatie van hun cliënten beïnvloeden
Authors: Van Parys, Liesbeth
Issue Date: 27-Oct-2016
Abstract: Problem statement
Over the past decades implementation and street-level bureaucracy research has shown forcefully that policy implementation is an integral part of the political policy process as a result of the discretion of street-level bureaucrats. For instance in the field of activation policy multiple studies have shown how caseworkers assign more resources to unemployed clients who have higher chances on the labour market (creaming) and park others (e.g. Wright, 2003; Thorén, 2008; Brodkin & Majmundar, 2010). In 1980 Elmore made a plea to switch the perspective of implementation research by no longer focusing on the gap between policy as designed and as implemented but by applying ‘backward mapping’ to find out how client outcomes are affected by the behaviour of street-level bureaucrats. At the end of the 1990s Winter made a similar call upon implementation scholars by suggesting to shift the focus from the coping behaviour of street-level bureaucrats to their interaction styles so as to learn how interaction styles affect the motivation and the behaviour of clients. Since the path breaking theoretical and empirical work on interaction styles by Winter and May (e.g. 1999 and 2000) too little further progress has however been made. An important obstacle is the need for a further theoretical development of the concept and the development of a measurement instrument. An underlying obstacle is the need for a more robust theoretical framework on motivation within the discipline of social policy research as a counterweight to the dominant but not entirely adequate rational choice paradigm (Hoggett, 2001; Wright, 2012). The importance of moving ahead on this path is further underlined by the fact that scholars in other disciplines too have advocated more research on the influence of factors which are not specific to a policy intervention but rather generic such as street-level bureaucrats’ interaction styles on the motivation and behaviour of their clients. These scholars are among others policy evaluation scholars Van Yperen and Veerman (2008), organisation studies scholar Hasenfeld (1992/2010) en social-psychologist Reeve (2006) and Vansteenkiste and Van den Broeck (2014).
In my doctoral research I have made a contribution to the theoretical and methodological renewal of the interaction style concept by connecting this academic problem to the following policy issue. With the European wide shift from a passive to an activating labour market policy the receipt of a benefit is made conditional upon job seekers participation in a trajectory that supports and stimulates them in their search for work. The expectation is that the conditionality of the benefit forms a serious financial incentive (‘a rational choice’) for job seekers to participate. Previous empirical research (Dean, 2013; Van Parys & Struyven, 2013) however has indicated that such a financial incentive is not sufficient if not pernicious for the motivation of (young) job seekers to participate in a trajectory. An important clue for an additional and more adequate source of motivation is the increased attention for autonomy, namely that job seekers have some freedom in choosing the goals and the activities of their trajectory in line with their internal compass so that they are more intrinsically motivated (e.g. Dean, 2003; Ziguras, 2004; Vansteenkiste & Van den Broeck, 2014). Yet the room for autonomy in activation is limited as activation policies balance rights with duties, and individual choice with the reality of the labour market. The question rises how caseworkers as ‘active moral agents’ (Wright, 2012) balance their double role to support and foster the autonomy of their clients on the one hand and enforce responsible behaviour from the side of their clients by monitoring and potentially sanctioning their behaviour on the other.
Theoretical framework
In Chapter 2 I developed a theoretical framework on the influence on interpersonal contact next to structural factors on the motivation and the behaviour of clients building on the social psychological self-determination theory of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the realist social theory of Margaret Archer and the capability approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. The theoretical framework departs from the analysis that the rational choice paradigm applies a too narrow perspective on human agency. That is, of men with fixed and rationally ordered preference sets from which choices follow determined by structural contextual factors in the form of sticks and carrots. Instead I build on the (critical) realist social theory of Archer that distinguishes agency and structure as two separate but irreducible strata of reality. The power of agents lies in their capacity to be conscious about themselves and their circumstances; to reflexively consider these in order to develop a personal and social identity; to set priorities; and to initiate and execute projects. Since people are situated in circumstances which they have not (entirely) chosen and precede them, structural and cultural factors have the power to facilitate or constrain individual projects. Though these circumstances do not determine human behaviour as agents are capable (through collective action) of either reproducing their circumstances (morphostasis) or changing them (morphogenesis). With this limitation however that agents may make flawed analyses of their circumstances, may not arrive at an ordering of their priorities or may under or overestimate their capacities. Archer puts against the instrumental motivation of the homo economicus the substantial motivation of the homo sentiens. That is people are driven by the concerns that constitute their identity (e.g. having warm relations with others, developing a successful career, feeding one’s family) and which are a goal in their own right rather than means to an end.
Archer’s theory does not say much however on the influence of interpersonal contact on human motivation and behaviour. Nevertheless not only structural and cultural factors but also other agents and thus also street-level bureaucrats exert an important influence on people’s identity development and the extent to which people can aim at their identity constituting concerns. Indeed agency is intersubjective: as ‘active moral agents’ street-level bureaucrats impose identities upon their clients and assign meaning to goals and actions; framings which can in turn be renegotiated by the clients from their frame of reference (Wright, 2012). For the development of their identity and the extent to which they can act upon it people are thus dependent on others. To understand this interdependence theoretically I have built on the social psychological self-determination theory. Like Archer, SDT departs from a pro-active and social human being who is (mostly) self-conscious and who aims at a coherent identity through reflection upon new demands; and whose personal projects are not determined by his circumstances but facilitated or hampered. According to SDT the degree to which people can function in a psychologically optimal way (in particular their identity formation, motivation and psychological well-being) depends on the extent to which their environment support three basic psychological needs. These needs are the need for autonomy, relatedness and competence. Autonomy (antonym of heteronomy and not of independence) implies the experience of psychological freedom and ownership; relatedness the experience of warm satisfying relations; and competence of being effective in what one does and in developing and mastering skills. Through the way in which street-level bureaucrats interact with their clients they can support but also frustrate these needs. For instance, an employment caseworker fosters the need for autonomy of his clients if he looks from their perspective and offers them meaningful choice with regard to goals and actions. The clients need for autonomy will become frustrated however if the caseworker exerts pressure by threatening with sanctions or by inducing guilty feelings to make them comply.
Finally, according to SDT the extent to which street-level bureaucrats interact in a supportive or frustrating way has an impact on the quality of the motivation of the clients and the sustainability and quality of their engagement. To be precise, based on SDT I expect that that a supportive approach fosters autonomous motivation (i.e. a sense of willing) which fosters in turn sustainable and qualitative engagement as the client is encouraged to act upon internalised goals. A frustrating approach in turn triggers a controlled motivation (i.e. a sense of having to) which is pernicious for the duration and quality of clients’ engagement as the client is deviated from internal goals towards external incentives.
Research questions
Building on the presented theoretical framework, this study had as its goal to investigate to what extent interaction styles – defined as the extent to which street-level bureaucrats support and/or frustrate the needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence of their clients – is a meaningful and relevant conceptualisation of the implementation behaviour of street-level bureaucrats. That is, can research on their interaction styles teach us more on 1) how street-level bureaucrats deal with their discretion, and 2) how their behaviour fosters or deteriorates the quality of the motivation and the engagement of their clients. It is expected that depending on the degree to which the interaction style is supportive or frustrating, the bureaucrat will foster respectively autonomous motivation (a sense of willing to) or controlled motivation (a sense of having to) with respectively positive and negative consequences for the durability and quality of the engagement. The labour market activation policies form an ideal test case to gain insight in the influence of different types of interaction styles of caseworkers on their clients because of the inherent tension between rights and duties; the freedom of choice for clients and the needs of the labour market; protection and activation. These dualities result in a double role for the caseworkers to support their clients on the one hand by supporting their autonomy and to enforce responsible behaviour on the other by monitoring and potentially sanctioning their behaviour.
The doctoral study consisted of two complementary empirical parts:
Part 1: How do caseworkers deal with their discretion: 1) to be more or less autonomy supportive (looking from the clients’ perspective and giving justification for the limitation of choice), competence supportive (providing positive feedback) and; 2) to be more or less autonomy frustrating (exerting pressure by threatening with sanctions and inducing guilt). Do caseworkers differ when it comes to their interaction styles and how can these differences be explained (exploratory)?
Part 2: Do the experience of autonomy support/frustration and relatedness support foster / hamper the motivation and the engagement of young unemployed clients in activation and how do financial incentives interfere in this process?
Research approach, design and methods for data collection and analysis
For the doctoral research I applied a critical realist research approach (Archer et al. 1998; Bhaskar, 1975/2008) with regard to what is to be known (ontology) and how it is to be known (epistemology). Put shortly research must lead to knowledge on real entities (of material, ideal or social kind), processes and mechanisms. Yet, what researchers observe is the contingent result of the interplay of processes and mechanism which are actualised at a certain point in time at a certain location. Indeed, reality is an open and complex system. This has implications for the vision on causality in the study. That is, causality is not understood as the observed correlations or set-relations between variables or conditions of cases. These relations are instead patterns which are an indication of underlying causal mechanisms. The implications of this research approach for the choice of methods for data collection and analysis and the generalizability of the findings will be clarified later on.
The empirical case
The empirical study concentrated on the case of the execution of the activation policy vis-à-vis young low educated unemployed client in Flanders because of the apparent tensions in this policy between the conditionality of the benefit and a discourse that stresses the responsibility of the unemployed clients on the one hand and the explicit call upon caseworkers to respect and foster the autonomy of their clients on the other. Indeed the VESOC Loopbaanakkoord of 2013 stipulates that the Flemish activation policy aims at: “a good balance between activating and protecting, between rights and duties, between the freedom of choice and the reality of the labour market, between realizing quick and sustainable / career oriented activation”. In the framework of the Samenwerkingsakkoord of 30th of April 2004 the caseworkers of the Flemish public employment service VDAB had the duty in 2013 to monitor the search behaviour of their clients and report lacking efforts and abuse to the federal social security agency which can withdraw the benefit (transmission). At the operational level the public employment service encouraged its caseworkers with the ARIA-guideline to promote clients’ self-steering by assuming their trustworthiness, by recognizing their perspective and departing from their career plan; and by stimulating reflection and action upon their plan.
Methods of data collection and analysis in Part 1
In the first part (Chapters 3 & 4) I developed a survey instrument to measure the extent to which the VDAB youth caseworkers supported / frustrated the basic psychological needs of their clients. For the development of this instrument I could draw partly on existing instruments developed in the framework of self-determination theory based research on interaction styles of teachers and parents. The measurement instrument consisted of 34 statements (Likert-items; answer scale: 1 (never) – 7 (always)) which were presented to the caseworkers in the framework of a web-survey. All 177 youth caseworkers at VDAB were invited and 91 participated fully (response: 51%) in the summer of 2013. Based on these self-reported data the survey instrument was validated with confirmatory factor analysis and the Raykov reliability test. Next, latent class analysis was applied to investigate whether different types of caseworkers could be distinguished based on their interaction styles. Last, bivariate association measures were applied to explore which individual and contextual factors could account for the interaction style differences among caseworkers.
Methods of data collection and analysis in Part 2
In the second part of the study (Chapter 5) I have investigated how the experience of need support / frustration on the one hand and having a financial interest in participating on the other are necessary and sufficient conditions for the young low educated unemployed clients to show up (quantitative participation) and engage (qualitative participation) in the activation trajectory. To that end I collected data through in-depth semi-structured interviews with 47 young low educated VDAB-clients in the winter of 2013-2014. With 26 young people I had a face-to-face interview, with 47 others an interview by phone. The switch from face-to-face to phone interviews was motivated by the need to also include harder to reach clients in the sample. The selection of these clients occurred in two steps. First, a sub-selection of caseworkers was purposefully drawn from the sample of 28 caseworkers that partook in the survey such that the different types of interaction styles were represented among them. Next, among these caseworkers a random sample of 217 clients was drawn. The conditions for these clients to be included in the sample were that they registered between April and June 2013, had a minimum proficiency of Dutch, and had a minimum of contacts with the service.
The interview data were analysed with qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) and process-tracing. The cross-case analysis method crisp-set QCA (Ragin, 1987) was applied to gain insight in (the configurations) of necessary and sufficient conditions (‘causal paths’) that lead to respectively the presence and absence of the outcome ‘quantitative and qualitative participation’. The conditions that were investigated are those which are expected to have an influence on clients’ motivation and participation according to self-determination theory on the one hand (i.e. the experience of choice, perspective, availability and threats and guilt inducement from the side of the caseworker) and according to the rational choice paradigm on the other (i.e. having a financial interest in participating and being explicitly asked to provide evidence of search efforts). In addition, I controlled for the role of the experience of tailored offers and demands. The within-case analysis methods theory-testing and theory-building process-tracing (Beach & Pedersen, 2013) were applied in a second step to gain deeper insight in the underlying causal mechanisms in the cases which follow typical and deviant causal paths.
Results
Results of Part 1
The first part of the study resulted in a validated scale of 11 Likert-items for measuring the extent to which caseworkers are … in interaction with their young clients:
autonomy supportive (i.e. look from their clients’ perspective and justify limitations of choice; 4 items),
competence supportive (i.e. provide for positive feedback and link-up clients with partners for support; 4 items), and
autonomy frustrating (i.e. use threats and induce guilt; 3 items).
The first two sets of items were found to correlate strongly (0,93) and have therefore been considered as one supportiveness scale. The full congeneric model with two dimensions resulted in a good fit (Chi²=80.28, df=64, p=0.08; RMSEA=0.05, 90% CI=0.00-0.09, p=0.428; CFI=0.99; TLI=0.99). The Raykov reliability confidence interval of this combined scale ranges from 0,84 to 0,92. The Raykov reliability confidence interval of the frustration scale ranges from 0,76 to 0,90. Important lessons from the doctoral study were in particular that more items were required per sub-dimension, a better balance was required between reverse and non-reverse worded items and items must be as generic as possible. Taking these lessons into account in a new study I have improved the autonomy support and frustration scales. In addition I have developed an alternative self-report instrument, namely one based on scenario’s to tackle common method bias. Future research must contribute to the improvement of the scales for measuring relatedness and competence support and develop scales to measure relatedness and competence frustration.
Two latent class analyses have been conducted to investigate which type of interaction styles the youth caseworkers apply. A first analyses focused on the combination of autonomy-support and autonomy frustration; the second on the combination of competence support and autonomy frustration. Both analyses resulted in a solution with 4 classes (resp. bootstrapped p-value= 0,19 and 0,34; and classification errors: 6 and 9%). The results of both analyses point to five types of interaction styles are present among the youth caseworkers of VDAB: the run-of-the-mill (45%), the severe but just (20%), the aloof (15%) and the harsh (5%). Within each of the four groups caseworkers are as eager to be autonomy and competence supportive as autonomy frustrating – except for the harsh who are much more eager to be autonomy frustrating than autonomy and competence supportive. In other words, the latter make very often to always use of pressure but only look regularly from the perspective of their clients, only regularly justify limitations of choice and give only regularly positive feedback. The severe but just caseworkers also make use of pressure very often to always but are evenly eager to look from their clients’ perspective, justify limitations of choice and provide positive feedback. An autonomy frustrating approach hence does not exclude an autonomy and competence supportive approach. Though it must be further investigated whether the severe but just and harsh caseworkers exert the pressure in different ways. It is possible that the items do not allow to distinguish more informative ways from threatening and guilt-inducing was of stressing clients’ responsibility. The aloof caseworkers exert the least often pressure (regularly), but are like the harsh among the least likely to look from their clients’ perspective, justify limitations for choice and provide positive feedback. The run-of-the-mill caseworkers are situated in between the other types of caseworkers on each of the dimensions. A fifth type of caseworkers is a sub-group of this group of the run-of-the-mill caseworkers. The group is particular in that the caseworkers are less likely to provide positive feedback (competence support) than to look from their clients’ perspective and justify limitations of choice (autonomy support). Since not all scales which were developed measure the theoretical dimensions of the interaction style concept could be confirmed in the empirical analysis (e.g. relatedness support and the ‘offering choice’ sub-dimension of autonomy support), more diversity among the caseworkers may have remained undetected.
The results of the explorative explanatory analyses show that interaction styles do not just vary with the type of client but also along with characteristics of the work context and of the individual caseworker. To be precise, differences were found among the types of caseworkers related to:
their age (one-way ANOVA, F=4,24 and p=0,04),
the experienced meaningfulness of the policy (one-way ANOVA, p’s<=0,05),
the experienced pressure to activate quick rather than sustainably (Kruskal-Wallis rank test, p=0,034),
their vision on reciprocity and tailoring in activation (Kruskal-Wallis rank test, p’s<=0,02),
the size of their local service point (one-way ANOVA, F=7,77, p=0,01) and
their caseload (Fisher’s exact test, p’s<0,05).
No differences were found with regard to seniority, gender, level of education, experienced powerlessness, vision on generosity of the activation policy, and six sources of work pressure (administrative, resources, ICT, performance management, caseload and professionalism). It is in particular the group of aloof caseworkers which differs from the other groups as the groups is characterised by a higher share of older caseworkers, higher caseloads, and caseworkers who on average consider the policy as less meaningful and are more inclined to oblige the young clients to take up a job. A picture comes to the fore of a group which, more than other groups, is confronted with obstacles.
Results of Part 2
In the second part of the study I investigated to what the extent the conditions which are central in respectively self-determination theory and rational choice theory are necessary and sufficient for young clients to show up (‘quantitative participation’) and engage (‘qualitative participation’) in an activation trajectory. Starting with the necessary conditions the csQCA reveals that the experience of an autonomy supportive approach (i.e. perspective and room for choice; resp. NoC: 0,92 and 0,92; RoN: 0,58 and 0,79), a relatedness supportive approach (i.e. an available caseworker; NoC: 0,92 and RoN: 0,79) and the non-experience of an autonomy frustrating approach (i.e. no threats and no guilt-inducement; NoC:0,94 and RoN: 0,56) are necessary for clients to ‘show up and engage’. These findings are in line with the expectations based on self-determination theory. In contrast to what was expected based on the rational choice paradigm, it was not necessary for clients to have a financial interest in participating (i.e. having a benefit to loose) for them to ‘show up and participate’. Instead the control condition appeared another important necessary condition, namely that clients experience tailored offers and demands (NoC: 0,86 and RoN: 0,91).
What concerns the outcome ‘not showing up and/or not engaging’, only one condition was found to be necessary, namely the non-experience of tailored offers and demands (NoC: 0,88 and RoN: 0,87). These findings are again in line with self-determination. In contrast, from the perspective of the rational choice paradigm it was expected that it would be necessary that clients have no financial interest in participating for them to not show up and/or not engage.
Next, the csQCA of the ‘sufficient conditions’ showed that experiencing that your caseworker offers choice, looks from your perspective, is available, does not use threats and does not induce guilt, and tailors offers and demands are cumulative sufficient conditions (‘INUS’-conditions) for the young clients to ‘show up and engage’. In 30 of the 34 cases in which the young clients showed up and engaged these cumulative conditions were present. In 20 of 30 of these cases which were investigated more in-depth with process-tracing the young clients were, as theoretically expected, in the first place or exclusively autonomously motivated to participate in the trajectory thanks to the interaction style of the caseworker and/or the tailored offer and demands. With the exception though for one young man who despite the supportive approach remained exclusively controlled motivated to participate. The motivation of the client was to remain eligible for the benefit. He supports the reciprocity principle but is happy that ‘the people of VDAB don’t bother him too much’.
What concerns the outcome ‘not showing up and/or not engaging’, the results of the csQCA do not point towards a unique set of cumulative conditions. Instead, the 18 cases belonging to this outcome represent 9 nine different causal paths. Nevertheless, relevant patterns can be deducted from these paths. The young clients who either did not show up or did not engage did not experience tailored offers and demands and at best a partly need supportive interaction style. In seven of the ten cases in which the clients showed up but did not engage, the young clients experienced threats and/or guilt-inducement, were explicitly asked to provide evidence of their job search, and had a financial incentive to participate. These three cumulative conditions were absent among five of the eight cases who did not show up. The theory-testing process tracing analysis of 12 typical cases confirms that young clients re
duce their engagement when they do not experience choice, perspective, availability and tailored offers and demands; and/or experience threats and guilt-inducement. In these cases the clients were controlled motivated or a-motivated (lack of motivation), and no(t) (longer) autonomously motivated. Those who risked losing the benefit, continued showing up but paid lip service or lashed out verbally. Whereas those who had no financial interest exited or evaded the service. The theory-building process-tracing analysis of 5 atypical cases showed that young clients who were not ready to search for work because of obstacles (e.g. care task, mobility issues, health problems) were merely controlled motivated by their financial interest. An autonomy and relatedness supportive approach was not effective for talking these clients over to engage, but an autonomy frustrating approach seems just as little effective.
To conclude, the conditionality of the benefit is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for young clients to ‘show up and engage’. Moreover, this big stick can better not be further emphasised by an autonomy frustrating interaction style i.e. the use of threats or guilt-inducement. The experience of an autonomy supportive interaction style (choice and perspective) in turn is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for young clients to show up and engage. In addition, they must have experienced an available caseworker and tailored offers and demands. That young clients who experienced such cumulative approach showed up and engaged, is the result of the fact that the approach fosters autonomous motivation (‘a willing’) – except for one client who remained controlled motivated. Future research must show which condition(s) can explain under which condition(s) young clients may not be susceptible for the autonomous motivation fostering approach. As in the previous part of the study here again not every theoretically relevant dimension of the interaction style concept could be included in the analyses. Hence, in future research the necessity and (cumulative) sufficiency of e.g. the dimension competence support for clients’ participation should be further investigated.
Generalisability of the findings to the populations
The just reported findings relate to one specific empirical case: the activation of the young low educated unemployed clients of VDAB and their youth caseworkers in Flanders in 2013. The generalizability of the results to the respective populations of caseworkers and clients depends on the extent to which the realised samples are representative for the populations. What concerns the caseworkers, the non-response analysis revealed that the participants of the survey do not differ from the non-participants on the know characteristics except for their gender. In that, men were over represented among the participants (32% among the participants versus 19% in the population). Given that the survey was time demanding (+-45min) it is possible that caseworkers with high (objective or subjective) time constraints are underrepresented among the participants.
What concerns the young clients, the 47 interviewed clients included in the analysis differ from the originally drawn sample of 217 clients in that the share of those who are not proficient in Dutch is smaller (2 vs 8%), the share of those who started a trajectory is larger (83 vs 70%) and the share of those who were transmitted to the federal agency for control is smaller (87 vs 95%). Despite the considerable efforts to reach out to all selected clients, it is to be expected that those clients who are harder to reach and to motivate by the public employment service were also harder to reach in the study. Thus clients who are for instance more negative vis-à-vis the service may be underrepresented in the realised sample. In future studies it must be investigated to what extent the findings also apply to these harder to reach young people.
Generalisability of the findings to other settings
Applying a critical realist research approach (Archer et al., 1998; Carter & New, 2004) I take the point of view that the result cannot simply be generalised to other context given that contingency is an inherent condition of the complex open reality. In any case the results of the study point out that interaction styles as they have been conceptualised and operationalised have considerable added value for gaining insight in how activation policies are implemented and particularly how caseworkers deal with their discretion. Further research in other settings is required to find out to what extent the appearance of certain interaction styles and their relative importance depends on the presence and/or absence of specific contextual factors (see below). For instance, the activation regime for young clients is more severe than that for older clients and it is also plausible that caseworkers consider older clients as more deserving than younger clients which may cause them to apply different interaction styles to both groups. Equally so, future research must show whether the here found necessary and sufficient conditions are also necessary and sufficient conditions for other target groups to participate in activation or remain valid in other activation regimes and welfare states.
Implications and challenges by discipline
For the disciplines of implementation and street-level bureaucracy research the results of the study point to the importance to study the interaction styles of caseworkers next to their decisions and coping behaviours to gain insight in how caseworkers affect policy implementation. Even in a homogenous setting of the implementation of the Flemish activation policy for young low educated unemployed people in one organisation in Flanders significant differences were detected among the caseworkers with regard to the interaction styles they apply. Moreover, these differences do not just result from a need for tailoring to different type of clients but also relate to individual and contextual differences among the caseworkers. The conceptualisation of interaction styles as the degree to which caseworkers interact in an autonomy, relatedness and competence supportive / frustrating way vis-à-vis their clients is not only relevant for activation policies but in fact for every (social) policy domain in which street-level bureaucrats are required to be both need supportive and enforce responsibility in realizing progress within a life domain. Though, some dimensions may be more relevant in some contexts than in others. Future research may reveal other important dimensions. What concerns the operationalisation of the interaction style concept, the study has shown that the it is more realistic to define Likert-items for the survey instrument that apply to the particular policy context than to multiple social policy contexts. Though given that a common instrument would allow comparative research I consider achieving a wider applicable instrument a worthwhile challenge for future research. Indeed, the study showed that comparative multi-level research is required to gain more insight in the relative importance of individual and contextual characteristics to explain differences in interaction styles among caseworkers. In particular more insight is required in the role of different action prescriptions and action resources (e.g. performance goals, rules, caseloads, channels) on the one hand and the objective and subjectively experienced gap between these prescriptions and resources on the other (Hupe & Buffat, 2014). The contextual factors are expected to vary along country-level / regional / organisational management cultures, welfare regimes and management styles. Given the classical problem of ‘too many variables too few cases’ in implementation studies (Goggin, 1986) and the difficulty to delimit a closed system in the open system of reality (Archer et al., 1998) I believe a stepwise approach is advisable. Cases should be selected such that they vary as much as possible on the structural factors of interest but as little as possible on others. In another studies the case selection can be altered to find out to what extent the patterns and causal mechanisms detected in the former study remain valid in contexts in which other structural factors may strengthen, weaken or nullify the found tendencies. For instance, the pressure of performance management within a government may be strengthened or weakened depending on the presence of absence of a performance oriented management culture and approach within each of the executing agencies. Finally, a particular challenge for the field of street-level bureaucracy is the investigation of how digitalisation affects caseworkers’ interaction styles. How does digitalisation affect the possibilities of caseworkers to apply a supportive and/or frustrating interaction styles? These possibilities are expected to depend on the type of the digital channel on the one hand and the extent to which caseworkers’ work methods are interfered and room for decision-making is limited by digital applications (e.g. statistical profiling and automatic communications towards clients).
For the discipline of social policy research this study has contributed to the development of a more robust theoretical framework on human motivation and agency. In particular, the study has pointed to the importance of autonomy for human motivation – considering human beings as proactive and social and aiming at a coherent identity – and confirmed and showed that for the experience of autonomy people are interdependent. Nevertheless, the quality of the procedural character of the interaction style was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for clients to participate. The motivation and participation of the young clients was also dependent on the experience of trajectory that is relevant content-wise (tailored offers and demands). In other words, the proposed trajectory must contribute to the realisation of what Archer (2006/2000) coins the ‘ultimate concerns’ that drive people’s projects. An important path for future research follows from the finding that clients from foreign origin are more likely to have experienced an autonomy frustrating interaction style. Hence, future research must give insight in the role of intersubjective formation of meaning and the mutual ‘expected expectations’ (Luhmann, 1995) in 1) the choice of the interaction style by the caseworker; 2) the experience of the interaction style of the client. This mutual influence must not be considered as a static phenomenon but as a dynamic process. More in-depth insight in this dynamic process requires that data are collected through observation in combination with in-depth interviews with both parties. Furthermore, a distinction must be made between 1) the interaction styles as the individual performance of the caseworker which can be ‘objectively’ observed; and 2) the interaction style as the emergent psychological structural result of the interpretation and experience of this performance by the client mediated by his personal frame of reference and by the particularities of the context. An interpreted interaction style is thus a psychological structure (Carter & New, 2004) in the form of a ‘state of mind’ or conviction with own tendencies and powers which affect the motivation and agency of the client. It is expected that the interaction style as interpreted by the client generally matches with the interaction style that is manifested and observable by the researcher. Though, the process of mediation does not exclude discrepancies. It is exactly this discrepancy which may explain why the clients from foreign origin were more likely to have experienced an autonomy frustrating approach. Yet it is not excluded that caseworkers also interact more often in an autonomy frustrating way with clients from foreign compared to non-foreign origin.
The self-determination theory was a crucial building block of the theoretical framework of this study. The findings confirm the relevance of SDT for the conceptualisation and operationalisation of the interaction style concept and the influences of caseworkers’ styles on the motivation and behaviour of clients. Vice versa the study allows to make recommendations for the further development of SDT. In the first place, the study pointed out that a distinction needs to be made between ‘non-need supportive’ interaction styles on the one hand and ‘need frustrating’ interaction styles on the other. Indeed autonomy support and autonomy frustration can best be understood as pertaining to two different dimensions rather than to the extremes of one dimensions. A meaningful conceptualisation of the autonomy frustrating dimension in activation policy is the extent to which caseworkers enforce responsible behaviour in either an informative or a threatening and/or guilt-inducing way. Second, the theoretical work conducted in this study pointed out that is important to distinguish two autonomy-experiences: the experience of self-regulation on the one hand and the experience of independence (in English confusingly also translated as ‘self-determination) on the other. The basic need ‘autonomy’ as defined in self-determination theory refers to the former, self-regulation i.e. the extent to which individuals engage in activities which they consider personally valuable and pleasant (intrinsic motivation, integrated regulation). Independence in turn refers to the degree to which individuals can make choices independent from others’ interference. To be sure, the distinction between autonomy as self-regulation and as independence in SDT is not new (e.g. Ryan & Deci, 2006; Chen et al., 2013), but the distinction is not always applied consequently. Moreover, I believe both concepts can be further enriched. To be precise, building on the capability approach (Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum) and on Assor (2012) I argue that both positive and negative freedom are required to experience both aspects of autonomy. These freedoms can be endangered through the characteristics of interpersonal interaction styles, personal limiting characteristics, but also – and this requires more research within SDT – by structural and cultural impeding factors. Autonomy as self-regulation requires the freedom for forming an internal compass and acting upon it; autonomy as independence requires the freedom for making independent decisions. In addition, both aspects of autonomy requires freedom from (i.e. being safeguarded from) respectively psychological and behavioural control. Autonomy in the sense of self-regulation was found to be a more fundamental need of the young clients than independence. That is, the young clients experienced the explicit request to provide evidence of their job search (behavioural control) only as need frustrating when they experienced that their caseworker was not supportive and threatened with sanctions or acted in a guilt-inducing way (psychological control). Last, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the findings raise questions about inter-individual differences in the experience of interaction styles.
Finally, this study has implications for evaluation research that is expected to support ‘evidence-based policy making’. The influence of interaction styles of caseworkers on the motivation and the behaviour of clients confirms that in order to understand the effects of activation policies these ‘general ingredients’ must be acknowledged as an integral part of the policy intervention (cf. Hasenfeld, 1992/2010; Van Yperen & Veerman, 2008). The detected diversity in interaction styles among caseworkers points to the fact that evaluation studies must account for this differential treatment to come to more correct estimations of the effect of activation policies. Furthermore, the study has shown that motivation is a variable which should no longer be neglected in evaluation research, particularly not the quality of clients motivation (autonomous, controlled, a-). At the methodological level the findings of the study point to the relevance to apply the realistic research approach and compatible methods – such as the set-relational QCA to gain insight in the (configurations of conditions) that are necessary and sufficient for an outcome, in combination with process-tracing to gain further insight in the underlying causal mechanisms that may explain these patterns. In particular the realist approach allowed to point to the contingency of the influence of interaction styles on clients motivation and behaviour on structural factors. For instance, the positive influence of a need supportive interaction style on clients’ motivation and engagement was nullified by the presence of obstacles such as a care task or health problems. In the same vein, young clients who were confronted with a frustrating approach were limited by their financial dependency when it comes to the range of behavioural options to resist this approach. In order to be policy relevant, the evaluation of activation should does not only consider the question how interaction styles affect clients’ motivation and behaviour, but also under which conditions.
Policy implications
The source of inspiration of this doctoral study was a puzzle which I was confronted with after an earlier study on the ‘hard to reach’ young clients of VDAB (Van Parys & Struyven, 2010 and 2013). That is, part of these young clients stopped participating in the activation trajectory though they were well aware of the fact that hence they could lose their benefit. This findings runs counter the expectation that the conditionality of the benefit makes participating ‘a rational choice’. The young clients explained their behaviour by pointing to their frustration with regard to the way the felt approached by the caseworker. What has this study revealed about the role of the interaction style of the caseworker?
First, the results show that in order to make young low educated clients to continue to show up and engage it is neither necessary nor sufficient that their benefit is conditional. Instead, it is necessary and (cumulatively) sufficient that these clients experience meaningful choice, experience that their perspective is taken into account, experience that the caseworkers is available in case of a problem and that the offers and demands made are tailored and worthwhile. The conditionality of the benefit is a big stick though, because those who did not experience a supportive approach (i.e. choice, perspective, availability and tailored offers and demands) or even a frustrating approach (threats, guilt-inducement), but who are dependent on their benefit will be inclined to continue showing up. Nevertheless, their actual engagement will be limited. That is, these young clients pay lip service and/or lash out verbally. Those who have no financial interest in participating quit or evaded the service. Put differently, the big stick is useful to stimulate the young clients to go to the employment service and to tackle abuse, but in order to motivate the clients to engage in the trajectory and make progress the stick must be combined with an interaction style and offer and demands that foster autonomous motivation (‘een willen’) rather than controlled motivation (‘een moeten’). Yet, neither the interaction style nor the stick are sanctifying. Other factors such as obstacles with which the clients are confronted (e.g. care task, mobility issues, health problems) may neutralise the positive influence of a supportive interaction style on clients’ motivation and participation.
Second, the results of the survey among the youth caseworkers of VDAB shows that there is considerable diversity among caseworkers what concerns the extent to which they take the perspective of the young clients into account, justify the limitation of choice, provide for positive feedback on the one hand and exert pressure to enforce responsible behaviour on the other. To be precise, five types of caseworkers could be distinguished ranging from the ‘harsh’ over the ‘aloof’ to the ‘run-of-the-mill’ and the ‘severe but just’. Given this diversity the question rises whether the principle of equal treatment is not at stake here? The finding that the diversity in interaction styles relates to both individual characteristics (age, activation policy vision, experienced meaningfulness of the policy) and contextual characteristics (experienced pressure to activate quickly rather than sustainably, size of the local service point, caseload) points out that the public employment service should stimulate its caseworkers to interact in a need supportive rather than a need frustrating way. Yet the service should also be aware of the fact that the way the organisation is steered may also have unintended consequences for the interaction styles of the caseworkers.
The findings of the study have implications for recent developments in the activation policy both in Flanders and at the federal level. The recent transfer of the task to control the efforts of benefit recipients down to the level of the caseworkers may provoke that caseworkers more easily resort to an autonomy frustrating interaction style (i.e. use of threats and guilt-inducement). The transfer may also compromise the credibility of a caseworkers’ need supportive interaction style. What concerns the increased digitalising of the service delivery, its impact on the interaction styles of the caseworkers is harder to assess. It can be expected, but must be investigated, whether and which digital channels facilitate and/or constrain the use of need supportive and frustrating interaction styles. Furthermore, the findings of the study point out that caseworkers need a sufficient set of resources in order to be able to make tailored offers and demands vis-à-vis their clients. Finally, the study shows that the decision at the federal level to increase the conditionality of the benefits for young people and to strengthen the degressivity of the benefits is pernicious for the engagement of the young clients in the (mandatory) trajectory because these incentives trigger controlled motivation (‘a having to’) – particularly if the trajectory is not experienced as need supportive or experienced as need frustrating and if the offers and demands are not tailored or worthwhile.
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