Q & A with the authors of Buying and Selling the Poor

Siobhan O’Sullivan, Michael McGann, and Mark Considine are authors of Buying and Selling the Poor: Inside Australia’s Privatised Welfare-to-Work Market, a new book in the Public and Social Policy series, which traces the impacts of marketisation and reform in Australia's welfare-to-work system.

How did you become involved in researching the welfare-to-work system?

Cover of Buying and Selling the Poor showing the title above a queue of people in sihouette at the bottom of the cover..

Siobhan: My PhD was focused on nonhuman animals, using a range of research methods. Following my PhD, I applied to work with Mark (and our colleague Jenny M. Lewis) at the University of Melbourne. They were starting a new project, looking at Australia’s welfare-to-work system. At that time, I knew little about welfare-to-work, but my methods suited the project. I quickly learnt all about it and was hooked. I am fascinated to think about how our social policy settings help the most highly disadvantaged among us. The world of welfare-to-work is always changing, so there is always something new to learn.

Michael: My first foray into researching Australia’s welfare-to-work system would’ve been when I was a Research Officer for the Parliament of Victoria’s Family and Community Development Committee. I worked on the committee’s Inquiry into Workforce Participation by People with Mental Illness, and the issue of the effectiveness of employment services and the impacts of mutual obligations on people’s mental health came up a lot in that inquiry. After that, I worked on a study of mature-age unemployment and underemployment that was jointly carried out between the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the University of Melbourne, before joining the team behind the research in this book in 2016. For the past two years, I’ve also been based in Ireland where I am researching the country’s welfare-to-work system after Ireland recently introduced its own employment services market.

Mark: I became interested when the Keating government delivered its exciting Working Nation program to assist unemployed people with more intensive support. The decision to use private contractors alongside public servants was a bold and somewhat controversial step and I decided to follow it and try to learn how this new complexity might work. This field soon became a key part of the ‘new governance’ movement across the OECD and we were able to build a team of researchers willing to collaborate and learn together.

The book focuses on four local employment offices. How did you come to choose these four?

We wanted to be sure that the offices we studied really were some of the best-performing employment offices out of all the Jobactive sites. So, we approached the Department of Employment, as it was known, about the project and about how we could identify these. They were extremely helpful and collated a list of 29 of the best-performing offices in Victoria and New South Wales after first contacting the agencies managing those offices to see if they would be open to participating in the study. As a research team, we then narrowed the list down to four offices trying to ensure that there was a geographic spread and that we were including for-profit as well as not-for-profit agencies in the book. The four offices that we eventually settled upon are all based in different employment regions and are managed by different Jobactive agencies. So, we hope that it’s quite a diverse sample of offices.

What most surprised you about your experience spending time observing the frontline point of delivery. How would you describe the experience of spending time in the welfare offices you visited?

Probably just how different each of the offices in the book are from each other, as well as the people working in them. As we think comes through from the four case study chapters, the offices really had quite distinct atmospheres and approaches to working with jobseekers ranging from quite a disciplinary and controlling orientation, in one case, to one office that treated jobseekers almost as if they were family or friends. We certainly met some very dedicated, compassionate, and inspiring people working at the frontline but then we also saw sanctions being liberally used in some offices and even case managers that, at times, seemed to celebrate stopping or cutting jobseekers’ payments.

The welfare-to-work system has undergone significant changes in the past few decades. What have been the biggest changes as experienced by the frontline workers at the centre of your research?

There are so many challenges faced by the frontline workers in this system but one of the biggest changes that they’ve probably experienced is the sheer volume of administrative work they have to do, and the reams of guidelines and protocols they have to be across. At one point in the evolution of the system, there were over 3,000 pages of administrative guidelines relating to frontline work. It’s not quite that high anymore but there is still an awful lot of documentation that the staff must know about. Much of this documentation relates to the work of ensuring that jobseekers’ are complying with their mutual obligations, such as performing Work-for-the-Dole. We quickly learnt not to try and contact frontline staff on certain days in the month. Those days are set aside for trying to gather documentation from jobseekers and employers, to make sure the office received all its payments and also retained its ‘star ratings’. As readers will see, monitoring jobseeker compliance takes up a lot of the focus of meetings as well as other administrative issues like sorting out whether jobseekers’ need to be reassessed so that they can be put into a different service stream.

You write about the government’s proposed move from face-to-face service provision to an app-based service. What kind of issues is this move likely to raise for both jobseekers and frontline staff?

Yes, this will happen from mid-next year although many of the cohort of jobseekers that we focus on in this book will probably remain in enhanced face-to-face services for some period of time. The app-based service provision is really only intended for jobseekers who are already highly employable, and who are unlikely to need intensive personalised support to return to work. Nonetheless, one key issue that we came across researching this book is the challenge of accurately assessing and identifying jobseekers’ support needs in the first instance. We saw lots of examples of things like mental health issues or periods of incarceration being missed by the initial assessment process, meaning that jobseekers received a lower level of service than would otherwise have been the case. This is going to be a big challenge for any digital-first system: if jobseekers who really need intensive personalised support are mis-categorised during the initial assessment process, they could end up stuck in digital-only employment services for a year or 18 months. This may further entrench their disadvantage.

Your research was conducted prior to COVID-19 restrictions, and you were able to travel to the four welfare-to-work offices and observe the interactions between frontline staff and jobseekers. How has the pandemic affected street-level research? Are there still ways to do this kind of study with restrictions in place?

We really don’t know how we would have been able to do this kind of research during the pandemic. There are probably pieces of the research that we would’ve still been able to do, such as interviewing the staff. But even then, without meeting them and spending many days in their company, we wouldn’t have been able to garner the rapport with them that we did researching this book. As readers will see when they read the book, the frontline staff were really open with us and regularly shared very frank and honest assessments of their work, and of the jobseekers on their caseloads. The fact that we were there in the office beside them and got to know them over months and months of research was critical in opening those doors, so we don’t know how you’d do this kind of street-level research from a social distance. But most of all, some of the most illuminating passages in the book come from what we see as flies on the wall, so to speak, during meetings with clients or observing the general dynamics between staff in the office. We wouldn’t have been able to capture any of that without physically being there. Moreover, as the system will soon be largely digital, we see this book as an important resource. It is an in-depth snapshot of a system that will soon be left behind, in some very important ways.

You dedicate space in the book to describing the people and places you encounter in your research in detail, creating an almost novelistic experience. Have you read any good novels recently?

Siobhan: I have limited vision, making reading difficult. So, I am very much into audiobooks and podcasts. Recently I have been listening to a mix of autobiographies such as Rememberings by Sinead O’Connor and Turns Out, I’m Fine by Judith Lucy. I really enjoyed Vaxxers by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green and Landslide by Michael Wolff. I am now listening to Marching Powder by Rusty Young. It is about his time in a Bolivian prison. The book is fascinating to me as I lived in Bolivia for a year as an exchange student. In terms of podcasts, I am a big comedy fan so I listen to a lot of comedy such as The Grub, The Phone Hacks, The Little Dum Dum Club and Confessions of the Idiots. My own podcast Knowing Animals is now hosted by a colleague in the UK. It is super fun listening to that as a fan. I learn all about the lives of animals without having to lift a finger!

Michael: I tend to read non-fiction. One book I could definitely recommend, although it’s quite old now, is Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s also written in a very narrative, novelistic way. The book traces the development of psychological (and psychic) warfare from the end of the Vietnam War to Bush’s War on Terror. It was made into a movie that made the story into a comedy, but Ronson’s book is far darker and more serious in my view. It’s clear that he’s really quite deeply shocked by what he encounters, and the book is intended to alarm rather than entertain readers.

Mark: I am reading Alexis Wright’s epic novel Tracker. He was a charismatic Aboriginal leader who had been taken from his family on Croker Island and then became a key influence on issues of self-determination and economic development. The book has the most compelling and challenging visual language and every time I put it down I feel like jumping in the car and heading north.