Since the early 2000s successive Australian governments have required single parents with school age children who are in receipt of income support payments to at a minimum engage in some form of planning to return to paid work or part-time paid work or education/training. Over time these “activation obligations” that have been placed on single parents have become more onerous. Currently the government requires parents in receipt of Parenting Payment Single to seek a minimum of 30 hours of paid work per fortnight once their youngest child turns six.

The government’s introduction of more onerous “activation obligations” has involved a significant cultural shift. Australia has historically had a strong maternalist culture in which mothers tended to remain at home to care for young children while fathers were the primary breadwinners. Compared to other countries Australia has strongly retained its maternalist culture. This is most evident Australia’s maternal employment rate which is significantly lower than other comparable countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

In recent years, in Australia and the UK, contracted employment service providers have taken on a new important role in administering the “activation obligations” placed upon single parents. However, to date researchers have not examined how Australian providers seek to mediate the “activation obligations” placed on single mothers in receipt of income support.

Our lack of understanding around how these contracted providers mediate “activation obligations” represents a significant gap given that while these services are paid for their performance in placing jobseekers in employment (“performance pay”) they also have significant freedom in how they go about achieve this goal (“process flexibility”). As previous research has found this freedom has sometimes results in these services failing to help the most vulnerable while focusing on the easiest to help. It is also important given that the government is constantly aiming to improve the performance of these service providers by changing their contract conditions.

In order to understand how the contracts between these service providers and the Australian government mediate the “activation obligations”, particularly the obligation to seek part-time work (of at least 30 hours per fortnight) we conducted observations and interviews with a total of sixteen contracted employment services. Our first interviews occurred shortly after the introduction of the 2006 Australian Welfare to Work reforms which introduced the new part-time work “activation obligations” for parents with a school age child.

A key finding was that in the two years immediately following the introduction of these Welfare to Work reforms the staff in these contracted employment agencies viewed single mothers as being part of a vulnerable group. In most cases service providers viewed single parents as psychologically vulnerable and they described their role as being caring confidants and mentors.

An illustrative example of this was the explanation of one manager, Jane, who told us that their work with clients centred “around confidence and motivation building” and the referred most clients to a program run by a psychologist that taught them about goal setting and addressing their challenges and fears.

The views that agency staff held about single parent clients had changed when we conducted follow-up interviews seven to eight years later. A key reason for this was that reforms to the employment services placed agencies under intense financial pressure to focus their assistance efforts on those who were deemed by the official assessment process (see Figure one) to be the most disadvantaged. In contrast to the earlier interviews, staff in these employment agencies no longer viewed single mothers as necessarily being vulnerable. Instead, staff in these contracted employment agencies told us that their approach to assisting single mothers was demined by the stream to which the official “engagement pathway” (see Figure One) allocated them. As one staff member explained [stream four] “it’s 40 per cent of our funding. [The government] pay more – we give more assistance to Stream 4 than Stream 1. If a single parent is in Stream 1 it will be less assistance to him.”

Figure 1: Job seeker engagement pathway with Jobs Services Australia 2012 – 2015

In the follow up interviews, staff members has also has moved away from the desire to build deep and meaningful connections with their clients instead stating that they sought to build immediate rapport in order to quickly understand the client’s immediate barriers to gaining employment. In the initial interviews the staff repeatedly referred to seeking to develop deep relationships. For example, a programme manager, Amy, explained: “… we do form a real connection with the client…we know what our boundaries are but I think we have to form a relationship.” Similarly, a job search trainer said that you need to build trust to that the client opens up to them and that she aimed to be someone who was “going to guide and mentor them [the clients] to where they want to be”.

This vision of changing clients’ attitudes through developing a genuine relationship based on an intimacy developed over time had largely disappeared by the time of the tranche two interviews. While JSA staff continued to assert the importance of the relationship, this was not the kind of deep mentoring relationship which many JSA staff described in the earlier interviews. Building immediate rapport was instead stressed as a critical task in order to quickly understand immediate barriers to an ‘employment outcome’. Staff, such as agency manager James, stated the building immediate rapport was important so that clients would open up about immediate practical matters that might be preventing them from gaining employment such as a client not being able to attend an interview because they could not afford “petrol this week” or their “son had to go to the doctor”. However, none of the staff members argued that they sought to develop deep, mentoring relationships that were based on intimate knowledge that was developed over time.

The findings of our study suggests that the quasi-market contracts used to govern employment agencies do strongly shape how staff in these agencies interact with their clients. The Australian government’s contracts mandates the assistance “stream” into which each client must be placed. The changes in the contracts between the government and employment service providers that occurred over time strengthen the financial incentive that agencies had to focus on particular clients. This strengthening of the financial incentives in the contracts changed how staff viewed their single parent clients. Over the course of our study, staff increasingly viewed single parent clients through the lens of the Australian Government’s official “Job seeker engagement pathway” (described in Figure one).

If these official pathways accurately capture the disadvantage experienced by groups such as single parents then this shift in focus may be a good thing. However, if official pathways, such as this, fail to capture the full level of disadvantages experienced by primary carer parents, then this shift may have negative consequences for this group. Further research is needed to investigate how contracts between governments and employment service providers affect individuals who have welfare to work requirements to ensure that clients in potentially vulnerable groups are not missing out on the support they need.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Targeting single mothers? Dynamics of contracting Australian employment services and activation policies at the street level’ published in the Journal of Social Policy.

About the author: Dr Michelle Brady is currently a Senior Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Queensland. Her work examines how government policy shapes how families organise and experience their engagement with paid and unpaid work. This has included projects on single mothers experiences of welfare to work, couple families’ experiences of paternity leave around the birth of a child, families’ experiences of childcare inflexibility given the changing nature of work. Currently she is developing new projects on maternal employment and new social inequalities and the future of work. You can follow Dr Brady @michellebradyuq and find full details of recent projects and publications at https://researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/2699 . Recent publications include “You can spend time … but not necessarily be bonding with them’: Australian fathers’ constructions and enactments of infant bonding” and Governing Practices: Neoliberalism, Governmentality, and the Ethnographic Imaginary.

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