New wave conditionality and social supervision

In today's post, Dr Simone Casey (@simonecasey) discusses the ethics and efficacy of recent developments in welfare conditionality in Australia. This continues her series of posts examining topical issues in Australia's employment services system - ParentsNext; mutual obligation; 'work first' activation of jobseekers; and the growing presence of automation in Australia's welfare system. Dr Casey is an Associate of the RMIT Future Social Services Institute.

Until recently I was a policy analyst at Jobs Australia and enjoyed access to the forums through which the Department of Jobs promoted information about new employment services programs. In this post I combine that knowledge with my sociological perspective to identify how these reforms reorientate labour market programs in ways that warrant critical scrutiny. This post is part of a series intended to make concerns about these programs visible and subject to public debate. 

Recent trends in social policy involving behavioural conditionality and technologies of governance are radically redefining the social contract.  This new wave conditionality involves strategically phased and targeted reforms common to austere welfare states globally. In Australia it is informed by governance strategies like Digital TransformationInvestment approaches, as well as the existing Indigenous focused Closing the Gap strategy.  

Recent labour market program initiatives draw on these strategies to induce welfare subjects to behave in market-oriented ways. They also embrace new technologies that provide cost efficiency for the surveillance of welfare subject behaviour. 

The job seeker compliance framework was the first surveillance technology to receive digital transformation treatment. This new Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF) was designed to make administrative savings by reducing the volume of minor fines and the transaction costs associated with resolving disputes. The intention was to reserve significant financial sanctions for wilfully avoidant job seekers while saving the government $204 million over five years from 2016-17.

Photo by  Jordan Whitt  on  Unsplash

Despite these worthy intentions there are early indications that disadvantaged cohorts are being disproportionately affected. The TCF, and the related trial of the new employment service model, needs independent scrutiny of the benefits of digital services and any egregious consequences.

The ParentsNext program was justified as consistent with the NZ Investment approach and was intended as an intervention to prevent parents with young children becoming long term unemployed. It was expanded in July 2018 and 85,000 Parenting Payments - mainly to single mothers - are now conditional on attending appointments and activities. As with other single parent focused welfare reforms, there are concerns about the impact of the policy on the recognition of care work for poor mothers; the discriminatory targeting of the program as well as harms caused the TCF.

Cashless debit card sample

Cashless debit card sample

There have also been extensive Human Rights objections to all forms of welfare quarantining (Basics Cards, Cashless Debit Card, income management etc). Despite this, expansion of these measures in Indigenous and other high unemployment communities is underway. These cards are technologies of social control which limit welfare subject choice over what they can buy and from whom.  Meanwhile, as with other forms of welfare corporatisation, companies such as Indue will profit from contracts to implement these technologies.

In September 2018, job seeker Mutual Obligation hours increased from 15 to 30 hours per week for all job seekers under 50 despite little evidence that this would improve employability. This tree-shaking measure has increased the administrative hassle of organising additional activities and has produced conflict at the street level.

In March 2020 there will be a consolidation of Centrelink payment types previously exempt from activation measures, such as the Widows allowance. Given the targeted nature of recent activation strategies, it seems likely that these payment recipients will find themselves with Mutual Obligations and depending on where they live, some will be forced into income management through cashless welfare cards. 

There has been no attention to how the Mutual Obligation hour change is affecting levels of in-work conditionality despite this being a concern as in the UK. But we do know that many job seekers churn through low-paid and insecure jobs and are chronically underemployed. These ‘part-rate’ Newstart claimants who may already be working or volunteering, are required to search for jobs, take jobs with more hours, and or do more volunteer work or Work for the Dole – and will be sanctioned for refusal. 

While it held promise as a work-preparation training experience, Employability Skills Training (EST) became compulsory for people under 25 in 2016.  From the outset there were a raft of issues in EST such as a lean payment model, reliance on a distributed market of providers, and the underpinning assumption of young job seeker disposition. Consequently, TCF penalties are concentrated on young people in EST, which has created problems for trainer engagement with young people as they are required to monitor and report non-attendance.

The Reasonable Excuse - Drug Treatment measure was introduced in July 2018 despite vocal objection that mandated treatment does not lead to enduring abstinence.  This measure reflects shallow engagement with actual evidence about welfare interventions for people experiencing drug and alcohol addictions. Worrying, it is likely that legislation for the previously abandoned bill for Drug Testing Trials will re-emerge this parliamentary term.

Time to Work is a voluntary program intended to link Indigenous prisoners with employment services support pre-release.  Again, the program has worthy intentions as ex-offenders are the most disadvantaged group in the labour market because of their offending records.  But there is something conceptually suspicious that Indigenous (mainly) men should be the target of a re-commodification program which has at its foundation the neoliberal intent of reducing long term welfare, health and custodial costs. Many would argue that their disproportionate rate of incarceration is a consequence of colonisation. It is perhaps no surprise then that early feedback on this program suggested physical and procedural barriers to reaching prisoners frustrate efforts to provide effective support - because they are behind bars!

While many of these new wave conditionality initiatives are based on laudable goals to target welfare interventions more efficiently, it is important to our democracy that bureaucrats engage with critical voices to identify harms that arise from them.  It is also important that the scholarly community is provided with access to data about these initiatives so that important questions about the ethics and efficacy of these forms of new conditionality can be debated.