Who to serve? The ethical dilemma of employment consultants in nonprofit disability employment network organisations.
The Welfare-to-work policy, implemented in July 2006 by the Federal
Government, imposed a new work and activity obligation on people
applying for the Disability Support Pension. This requirement not only
created a new obligation for people with disability but also for
employment consultants working in nonprofit Disability Employment
Network organisations to monitor the conduct of this new cohort on
behalf of Centrelink. For many employment consultants traditionally
drawn to the nonprofit disability sector for altruistic reasons, this
has created an ethical dilemma between their duty to their employer, and
acting in the best interests of their clients. Drawing on aspects of
ethical theory we find that, although most employment consultants
justify their actions in terms of duty to the organisation, some find
themselves in an ethical dilemma of 'who to serve' when the
interests of the organisation and the welfare of the client are
Key Words: Welfare-to-work; Nonprofit; Disability
(Human resource management)
Disabled persons (Employment)
Disabled persons (Compensation and benefits)
Labor law (Interpretation and construction)
|Publication:||Name: Australian Journal of Social Issues Publisher: Australian Council of Social Service Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Australian Council of Social Service ISSN: 0157-6321|
|Issue:||Date: Autumn, 2009 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||Event Code: 280 Personnel administration; 530 Labor force information Canadian Subject Form: Labour law Computer Subject: Company personnel management|
|Product:||Product Code: 8380000 Nonprofit Institutions; 8300000 Social Services & Nonprofit Institutns NAICS Code: 813 Religious, Grantmaking, Civic, Professional, and Similar Organizations; 624 Social Assistance|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
In July 2006 the then Federal Government in Australia, led by John Howard, implemented welfare-to-work policies for several social security cohorts, including people with disability. The opportunity to extend the principle of 'mutual obligation' from the unemployed to people with disability arose with the federal election victory in October 2004 when the Howard Government gained control of the Senate (Saunders 2005). After a brief consultation period in November 2005 in which a number of public hearings were conducted by a Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, the Welfare-to-work policy was enacted as the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to work and Other Measures) Act 2005. Along with the inter-departmental transfer of disability employment responsibility from the Department of Family and Community Services to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (1), this represented a new direction for people with disability and the Disability Employment Network (Macali 2006).
The welfare-to-work reforms present a fundamental challenge to the way in which the Disability Employment Network has previously operated because the nature of the professional relationship changes from being based on voluntary assistance to a mode of engagement with clients based on compulsion and coercion. One of the contractual duties associated with welfare-to-work case management is monitoring the conduct of clients to ensure they comply with their Activity Agreements, which may involve various job search activities and maintaining regular contact with employment service providers. Abello and MacDonald (2002) identify that employment consultants are required to not only assist people to find suitable employment but also to take on a policing and compliance role, alongside the traditional focus on employment brokerage and support.
These dual roles present ethical challenges at the front-line of the Disability Employment Network in the sense that the worker must make complex determinations that in different situations cast them as either an agent of the state, or an agent for the client (Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2000). In this paper we seek to explore how workers at the front-line of one nonprofit organisation in the Disability Employment Network attempt to reconcile departmental contractual requirements with the social mission of the organisation that they are employed by, alongside the best interests of the client. The focus on the local level of policy practice is particularly appropriate in the context of welfare-to-work policies, given that the implementation of these set of policies are being devolved to agencies outside the Australian government sector, each of which has their own set of professional norms and organisational practices.
Informed by the resurgent interest in 'street-level' research and theory and drawing on aspects of moral philosophy and ethics, we explore the conflict between the requirement for people with disability to seek employment and the ethical value systems of front-line employment consultants. We examine how this conflict manifests itself in regimes of reporting clients to Centrelink for compliance failure and the ethical dilemmas these employment consultants experience in their day-to-day decision making. We begin by providing a description of the Disability Employment Network model and the challenges of nonprofit organisations within the network, to contextualise the work environment in which employment consultants are employed. Using an ethnographic methodology of observation and semi-structured interviews with employment consultants in one nonprofit Disability Employment Network organisation, we identify three sub-groups that emerge from the data analysis. We then show that one of these sub-groups is confronted with an ethical dilemma between their contractual duty to the organisation and their commitment to the welfare of their clients.
Nonprofit Organisations in the Disability Employment Network
Employment services for people with disability in Australia are delivered via the Disability Employment Network (DEN) based on contracting arrangements between the Federal Government as purchaser and a multitude of for-profit and nonprofit provider organisations (Carroll and Steane 2002). There is significant diversity among DEN providers, in terms of size, age and type of service. Most services are generalist, assisting people with a range of different disabilities. Other services specialise in assisting people with particular disabilities, the most common being intellectual disability, psychiatric disability and physical disability, although there are small numbers of providers in a range of other specialisations (Wade and Bell 2003: 7). DEN providers operate in all states and territories, and operate in metropolitan, regional, rural and remote settings.
In the case of mainstream employment services Australia has a full purchaser-provider split meaning that organisations compete via a tender process to provide services as agents to the government (Struyven 2004). This new system, referred to as the Job Network, was established in 1998 to replace the former Commonwealth Employment Service. The change away from government provided service delivery to a market based provision is best explained by the advent of New Public Management and the influence of neo-liberal economic policy (McClelland 2006). New Public Management, in its most basic definition, is an attempt to modernise government 'from the perspective of the individual ... in particular an economic view of the individual' (Massey and Pyper 2005: 5). The premise is that government should "steer, not row" and services considered able to be more efficiently delivered by the private sector should be delivered via a market mechanism.
The DEN differs from many other markets in that it is a managed quasi-market, mimicking many features of a typical market by providing 'scope for competition, variable prices, some degree of choice for job seekers, flexibility in the way services are delivered, and rewards for good providers' (Productivity Commission 2002: xxii). The term quasi-market is used to understand a market for services where there is only one purchaser. In the DEN and Job Network this is the Federal Government. Burgess (2003) explains that the provision of employment services under this particular model has two elements; vertical disintegration where the natural monopoly purchaser is separated from service provision, and contestability via a competitive tendering system. The DEN model is analogous to the Job Network, which consists of a 'web of services' provided to jobseekers. The spider at the centre of the web is the Federal Government agency, Centrelink, which is responsible for initial client assessment, payment and co-ordination of services, while financial accountability and performance is monitored through the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, which tenders out employment services (Burgess 2003: 228).
While funding models for employment services both in Australia and overseas have largely been based on fee-for-service, the model adopted for DEN providers is outcomes driven. This case-based funding model is popular in the human services, especially within the United States, United Kingdom and Australia (Corden and Thornton 2003). Using contracts and this type of funding model to deliver traditional government services can theoretically result in positive gains by innovative services being delivered at minimal cost, so long as quality of service provision is not compromised (Webster and Harding 2001). However, they can also create a level of dissatisfaction amongst nonprofit organisations, particularly in cases where government simply invites organisations to 'accept the terms of a deal it has already drafted' instead of negotiating 'as equals the terms of an agreement' (Hancock 2006: 55). This may create asymmetrical power relationships between the state and nonprofit organisations where the government is the dominant partner (Acheson 2001). This, in Hancock's (2006) opinion, means these organisations must adopt the practices of government as their involvement increases. Further, micro-management of providers by the purchasers can stifle innovation and flexibility.
In the case of the Job Network, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that over the life of the Job Network administrative and compliance requirements imposed by the government have increased to the point where there is now little room for innovation and flexibility (Marston and McDonald 2006; Thomas 2007). Eardley (2002: 301) believes the creation of the Job Network (and now the DEN) represents a 'significant challenge for non-profit, community based agencies ... accustomed to working in partnership with government on a grant-for-services basis' and who are now 'faced with full-scale competition'. The experiences of nonprofit organisations in the Job Network over the past decade provide an insight into the behaviour of employment consultants (ECs) as they appropriate, resist and adapt to the new model of service delivery. In a study conducted in the late 1990s, Considine (2003) compared the difference in practice of nonprofit employment organisations and their staff in two different years; 1996 and, three years later, in 1999. Two changes in this period are particularly relevant to nonprofit DEN organisations. First, there was an increase in front-line staff reporting their actions better reflected the financial benefits for the organisation; and second, with respect to sanctioning or breaching, although nonprofit staff still had an aversion to this task as part of their case management of clients, there was nonetheless a trend over the three year period towards becoming more like the (then) government provider and for-profit providers, with there being no significant difference between the three groups in 1999.
Considine (2003: 75) concluded that, due to the intensification of competitive pressures between government provider and for-profit and nonprofit organisations, this resulted in 'the distinctive role of the non-profits being eroded over time ... because the incentive system created by the quasi-market requires that they take on the financial strategies and service-delivery methods used by their competitors'. This observation is consistent with a second study where Ramia and Carney (2003: 264) conducted 15 interviews with senior managers of nonprofit organisations in the Job Network in both Sydney and Melbourne. They found that the focus on outcomes forced nonprofit organisations to 'either embrace the competitive spirit or face dire consequences' in terms of ongoing financial viability.
Although these two studies demonstrate nonprofit employment organisations and their front-line staff have been forced to change their practices over time it is not unusual for sub-groups within these street-level environments to emerge, sometimes at odds with these general trends. Lackner and Marston (2003: 24), for example, have identified that in the Job Network, 'some case managers used the participation reports as a last resort, while others submitted a participation report after only making one attempt to contact the person'. Similarly, Bigby and Files (2003) discovered different breaching regimes in one Job Network provider over a two month period in 2001. They found that, with respect to breaching clients, staff fell into two categories; those who were likely to seek further information for a possible breach and enforcers who, while usually allowing a first breach, adopted a no second chance, business-like approach.
The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), as policy architects and in their attempt to control street-level practices of ECs, operationalise their policy objectives by way of practice guidelines or 'Programme Procedures'; an integral part of the contractual arrangements between DEWR and DEN organisations. These procedures require the organisation to make at least two attempts to contact a client who has failed to attend a scheduled interview. If the client 'cannot be contacted; or fails to contact the DEN member; or the DEN member is not satisfied with the reason the DEN Participant provided for not attending the scheduled interview' the organisation must notify Centrelink using a Participation Report (DEWR 2006: 36). These participation reports can be used as a trigger for Centrelink to suspend payments until a determination is made about whether to impose a financial penalty. The penalty regime has intensified under the 2006 welfare-to-work policies. For 'serious participation failures', clients face a no payment period of 8 weeks. There were 15,109 suspensions applied in the first year of the new 8 week non-payment period. Although the exact number is not available a proportion of these cases were people with a disability (National Welfare Rights Network 2007).
In this particular context, it is organisational policy that ECs are responsible for determining when to submit participation reports (PRs) to Centrelink. While ECs do not, therefore, technically breach clients when they have lost contact with a client, their reporting actions may trigger a financial sanction being applied when a client fails to engage in job seeking activities as detailed in their Activity Agreement. Activity Agreements are a 'written agreement negotiated between a DEN Participant and an Employment Service Provider (ESP) or Centrelink that outlines a DEN Participant's terms of participation, both compulsory and voluntary' (DEWR 2006). Ultimately, it is the role of Centrelink to decide whether or not to impose sanctions on clients for breaches of these Activity Agreements. Nonetheless, front-line employment consultants in the Disability Employment Network now find themselves in a situation where their duty to the client and their duty to the organisation (and through them the government) may conflict. How employment consultants manage this tension is explored in the next section of the paper.
Reporting Regimes of Nonprofit Disability Employment Network Consultants
In July 2007, 12 months after the implementation of the Welfare-to-work policy, we undertook a street-level ethnographic study of policy implementation at one Brisbane metropolitan nonprofit DEN services provider. The use of ethnography is especially useful in street-level policy implementation studies due to the process dynamics of 'decision making, communication, bargaining, negotiation and conflict' (Schofield 2004: 288) and the 'complex interaction, over time, among a distinctive set of key actors and events at any given site' (Yin 1982: 45). The rationale for using one particular study site rather than multiple sites was largely due to resource limitations. Therefore, the intent of this study is to understand the reporting regimes and the ethical dilemmas of ECs in the early stages of the policy in the context of a well established, local niche nonprofit organisation where ECs' reporting regimes are not only influenced by the rules and regulations of DEWR but also by the culture of the organisation. As noted earlier, however, there can be a tendency over time for practices of front-line staff to converge, more in line with the intentions of policy architects.
In terms of the physical practice environment, the organisation has a small number of offices in the Brisbane area with one main office acting as the hub. It is from this office the study was conducted. The organisation assists people with a range of disabilities and ages and has been operating for almost 20 years. The main office is situated in a modest business precinct in what might be considered a lower middle class socio-economic area of Brisbane. This crude classification is made by observing the type and age of motor vehicles in the street, prices of food in local shops, and age and repair of surrounding homes. Perusal of the repair of surrounding businesses suggests it is consistent in appearance with these businesses. The internal office spaces are in need of refurbishment. The organisation has contracts with DEWR to provide both Capped and Uncapped disability employment services. Prior to the introduction of the Welfare-to-work policy, only Capped places were provided and clients did not typically have mutual obligation requirements. A sense of the organisational culture is described by ECs further on.
Thirteen employment consultants were recruited to the study, being the total number of ECs employed in the organisation. The site was observed on a daily basis for five weeks, representing 140 hours of observation. This observation period was supplemented by semi-structured interviews conducted in week six of the study. As a group, approximately two-thirds of Ecs (2) have a background in the human services, having worked in a variety of areas including drug and alcohol education; tertiary teaching; supported accommodation; social work; and psychology. Most ECs have been with the organisation between one and three years.
While street-level theory acknowledges that there is often a disparity between the intentions of policy makers and the practices of policy implementers, we draw on ethical theory to analyse why different practices among the front-line workers may exist. ECs in this study, based on interpretations in the data collected, fall into three reporting regime sub-groups: (1) those whose practice is reportedly consistent with the DEWR guidelines on participation reporting and is rules-based; (2) those whose practice displays a greater use of discretion in interpreting the guidelines and is discretion-based; and (3) those whose practice regularly transgresses the official guidelines and is principally focused on the welfare of the client. In other words, their actions are virtue-based.
Sub-Group 1: Rules-based practice
In this trichotomy, the first group of ECs displays a clear commitment to the guidelines and responsibilities as outlined in the programme procedures and policy guidelines. This group typically justifies their actions in terms of duty to the organisation and its contractual requirements with DEWR. They believe clients make their own choices and, therefore, should be accountable for their actions. Although it was observed that this group maintained a sense of compassion, their commitment to the contractual requirements and the policy logic of welfare-to-work policies is first and foremost:
SCOTT: ... They're responsible; everyone's responsible for their choices. So this is part of my obligation ... we don't breach, Centrelink breach but we put in Participation Reports so is up to Centrelink what they do with it ... it's a way of tracking behaviours and patterns ... my conscience is clear ...
TED: ... they don't have to turn up to meetings; they don't have to take jobs. It is their decision what they want to do however if you don't this is what we have to do legally. We have to let Centrelink know. We have to put in Participation Reports. What happens then is then up to Centrelink.
LINDA: ... you're required to do it and that's what I'm paid for but on an ethical level I really don't have a huge issue because I think its been made clear that you're receiving this money in return for looking for work. If you're not doing that you're not going to get it so that it's made clear ...
These ECs rationalise their decisions in terms of 'obligation' and people being 'responsible for their choices'. Linda discusses that 'on an ethical level' she doesn't have a huge issue with reporting non-compliance, while Scott states his 'conscience is clear'. The discourse of individual responsibility, which lies at the heart of welfare-to-work policies, is reinforced in these utterances. As such, the use of participation reports to change individual behaviour is ethically justified because the client is seen as totally responsible for their actions. It is also interesting to note that any ethical tension is diffused in the above utterances because authority for determining whether to apply the 'breach' on the basis of the participation report can be deferred as being 'up to Centrelink'. In this respect, the front-line worker can legitimately claim that it is not their responsibility to determine whether someone should be financially penalised for non-compliance because this is considered to be the duty of government. In other words, the workers are simply 'doing their job'.
There is an assumption in these utterances that the subject is informed of their rights and responsibilities sufficiently enough to use their own reason and face the consequences of their actions. This is similar to Immanuel Kant's deontological ethical theory, where the concept of rationality 'enables people to understand what their duties are' (Parrott 2006: 47). Kantian ethics treats people as 'free and self-determining agents' (Banks 2004: 78) by placing value on people being 'autonomous and responsible for their own decisions' (Chenoweth and McAuliffe 2005: 49). This cluster of responses is consistent with this construction of responsible and rational actors. Whether the clients of the service are sufficiently informed and thus fully capable of being a self-determining agent is not questioned in these utterances. Yet, previous research into the practice of implementing mutual obligation has shown that some groups in the community, particularly young people and Indigenous people, had very low levels of understanding about their complex and demanding mutual obligation requirements (Jope 2003; Ziguras et al. 2003). People with intellectual and learning disabilities are likely to face similar challenges as they are moved squarely under the gaze of the mutual obligation policy regime.
This first group of front line workers is also quite supportive of the principle of mutual obligation underpinning the Welfare-to-work policy:
SCOTT: I think work is a healthy, good thing ... yes, the law of exchange. If you want something what are you prepared to do? It can't be sweet Fanny Adams you know ... as far as big picture goes we're running out of workers. The good thing about that is finally people now have an opportunity where they haven't before necessarily ...
In these judgements there is a 'moral ought' concerning the behaviour of the client, as in they ought to comply because they are receiving income support from the government in return for 'actively' looking for work. The concept of giving something back in return for social security payments is embedded in the government's mutual obligation policy3. The principle of reciprocity is an established social norm; hence it is easy to understand why this group of workers endorse the idea of mutual obligation. The construction of the social problem of unemployment includes a construction of morality around the appropriate behaviour of the unemployed subject. In this case the unemployed must act in a way that is perceived to be good for themselves ('work is healthy') and the economy ('we're running out of workers'). For this group there is no inherent conflict between the ethic of paid work, the implementation of welfare-to-work policies and the social and economic security of people with disabilities.
Sub-Group 2: Discretion-based practice
The second group of responses emphasise more discretion in interpreting the guidelines. This group justify their actions in a similar way to the first group although they display some apprehension in submitting participation reports and strictly applying the rules:
DARREN: ... I'm erring on the side of the client, give them the benefit of the doubt but I'm not, I'm not a pushover ... I give them a chance ... but I only give them one of those chances and after that I think no that's it.
As discussed earlier, the Programme Procedures give ECs some discretion to consider the validity of the reasons for non-attendance at scheduled interviews. This second group displays a less rigid position, however, they are wary of this goodwill being abused or taken for granted by clients. While ECs in this group also agree with the principle of mutual obligation, they are less supportive of the Welfare-to-work policy due to the perceived severity of the compliance policy on some disability clients. This is articulated in terms of the age at which some clients are expected to fulfil a mutual obligation and of what they perceive to be a 'catch-all' policy:
DARREN: ... yeah I don't mind the philosophy of working for your payment but what I struggle with is ... they've put people that are 64 and a half on to this program right, its wasting their time, its wasting my time, I could be helping someone more effectively ...
RAY: ... I think I agree with the principle of mutual obligation. What I disagree with is the way that it's been implemented. We've got a little bit like a big brother system in place at the moment and I think its swept everybody into the same basket regardless of their abilities or aptitudes or level of functioning and I think that's wrong, You can't, you can't treat everybody exactly the same because people are very different and there's some people who can't fit within that system.
The ethical question being raised in these reflections is similar to the first group in that it is asking a fundamental question concerning our duties to our fellow human beings. With this second cluster of responses the answer to this question is couched more in terms of co-responsibility, rather than individual responsibility for one's actions. There is some acceptance that whether someone secures a job is in part a reflection of structural determinants, such as age and how the 'system' works. The different response of this group also comes down to a degree of resentment about the increased surveillance associated with the introduction of welfare-to-work policies, identified above as a 'big brother element'. The policies fail to respect the diversity of the client population. The moralised identity of welfare-to-work policies constructs the client population as homogenous and in need of both behavioural change and moral reform. In relation to the issue about state surveillance the ethical question concerns the right to freedom from 'unwarranted interference' (Berlin 1969). In terms of welfare-to-work policies the compliance regime requires the state and its third party contractors to intensely scrutinise the behaviour of the client so that ongoing eligibility for assistance can be determined. The second objection raised in this group about homogeneity ('treating everybody exactly the same') concerns the ethic of respecting difference. Sennett (2003: 106) argues that in the case of welfare-to-work policies social security recipients are rendered spectators to their own needs, '... objects to be worked upon by a superior power'. Thus, some of the objection comes down to a perception that the clients are denied the respect given to others deemed capable of being 'self-determining' human agents.
Sub-Group 3: Virtue-based practice
Unlike the first and second groups, the third group of ECs only consider notifying Centrelink when they have lost all contact with the client, sometimes after many months of not being able to communicate with them. This group justifies its actions in terms of the welfare of the client and their practice regularly transgresses the DEWR guidelines. Although there are more than two ECs in this group, the following provides an insight into the ethical stance of these workers regarding participation reports for non-compliance:
PENNY: ... there's only one, one, one [emphasised] instance where I report ... it is only if I have lost contact with a client ... that is the only time I will breach. I'm failing that client; I haven't found the right triggers for that client. If the client suddenly disappears, he's no longer at home, he's not answering mail, he's not answering phone calls ... that's the only trigger I use ... to produce a PR.
SUE: ... if they want clerical type robots as ECs in a DEN well then they should look at hiring different people but I think you can't take the compassion out of it and if a person doesn't turn up you need to know the reason before you even think of putting in a participation profile ... I'd be very reluctant to breach somebody ...
In contrast to the first and second group's Kantian-like ethical values, the language ECs in this group use to justify their actions ('failing that client') and ('you can't take the compassion out of it') is more consistent with a virtue ethics value system. Beckett and Maynard (2005: 41) state that virtue ethics allows people to determine whether an action is right, not because it 'concurs with a duty, but because it is consistent with virtue'. In understanding how ECs in this group use virtue ethics to guide their reporting practices, social workers, for example, might believe these traits and virtues to include notions of 'compassion, honesty, integrity and tolerance' (Chenoweth and McAuliffe 2005: 50). This group, while also quite supportive of the Welfare-to-work policy like the other groups, is critical of the harshness of some of the program requirements and articulate their feelings in terms of compassion:
SUE: I've got nothing against mutual obligation, it's a good thing but you need human beings dealing with it with compassion ... when you're dealing with certain disability groups and I mean the, the implications of not meeting your obligations are not always apparent to some people despite you explaining that to them ... I mean it's too complicated for them to understand and, of course, they just often wear the breach on the chin and ah, because they can't offer a reasonable explanation or try and negotiate it and they can't negotiate it and I think the people that are most vulnerable are the ones that are going to get hurt by this.
PENNY: ... I'm a hundred per cent behind the principles of Welfare-to-work ... anybody who is working has got an added element to their character and its usually a good one ... even if it's a bad job they've got something to whinge about at the BBQ ... I really do strongly believe that working is the best place to fill in your hours. So I agree with that. But unfortunately ... I have a complete mistrust of DEWR, no respect for them at all ... the only issue I have is DEWR dealing dollars and cents and we on the ground level deal with people ...
Although this group believe unemployment can have a detrimental effect on the well-being of individuals (Creed and Macintyre 2001), they are critical of DEWR being more concerned with financial accountability than the welfare of people with a disability. In contrast to the first group of respondents, this group sees a potential conflict between the economic objective of increasing labour force participation rates and the welfare of people with a disability. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations is positioned by this group as placing the economic imperative above the expressed needs of clients. This interpretation is consistent with Saunders (2005: 3) who describes the difference between DEWR and the former Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) as shifting the 'balance of bureaucratic power away from the more socially-liberal mindset within FaCS to the more hard-nosed economic mindset of DEWR' where the rationale for making social security benefits conditional on the recipient looking for employment is based on the premise that the moral hazard of creating disincentives to look for work is often mitigated by mutual obligation requirements (Ziguras 2004).
As identified earlier, previous studies on the effects of contracting out employment services to the nonprofit sector in the Job Network have shown that nonprofit organisations have been forced to adopt the financial strategies and competitive spirit of their for-profit competitors, undermining the social mission of many of these organisations (Considine 2003; Ramia and Carney 2003). This is also demonstrated in this study, as is the findings of earlier research into the Job Network that workers take different approaches to implementing policy guidelines. What we have attempted to do here is to add to this body of research by highlighting the ethical tensions as they are emerging at the front-line of one nonprofit organisation providing disability employment services in a sector that has traditionally been based on voluntary assistance to clients.
A sense of incompatibility between the new contractual environment with its mutual obligation component and the organisation's traditional social mission is expressed as a conflict of organisational values by some ECs:
SUE: Very incompatible, yep. There's a lot of incompatibility there ... in terms of ... our philosophy and DEWR's stated intentions.
LINDA: ... there seems to be a bit of a balancing act in terms of urn, acting in the best interests of a client ... whilst at the same time fulfilling DEWR's requirements and sometimes they don't match up entirely well ... it's very much you've got to demonstrate that you're doing something for the money we give you.
Other ECs have a more definite belief that the new policy and associated contract has resulted in a change in the culture and objectives of the organisation that they are employed by. Although these ECs understand the organisation expects them to treat their clients with respect, they believe results are the prime expectation of them in their role as ECs:
DOUG: Well I think that [organisation] expects results basically; first and foremost, that's how we ... roll financially and are able to provide the service ...
RAY: ... number one, making sure that we achieve our milestones on time or ahead of time for each client, that we put in the correct amount of work, therefore money on the clients we have, urn, and that, you know, we make sure that we ... can bring in more money than is spent on us in terms of wages and cars and things like that ...
In understanding the ethical dilemma some ECs are confronted with in this new organisational environment, Banks (2001) identifies the difference between ethical issues; ethical problems; and ethical dilemmas. In the context of this study, the ethical issue relates to the broader question of whether disability clients should be punished for not engaging in job-seeking activities in return for government financial assistance. The ethical problem this potentially creates for ECs is that the organisation, in which they are employed, has entered into a contract to deliver employment services where it is now contractually bound to report clients to Centrelink who do not engage in these job-seeking activities. The ethical dilemma, however, arises when ECs or a sub-group of ECs believe the interests of the organisation and the welfare of some particular clients is mismatched.
Although Linda, one EC in the first group that practice 'consistent' with the guidelines, believes the organisation is now in a balancing act of both acting in the interests of the client and fulfilling the organisation's contractual obligations with DEWR, for her and others in this group there is no ethical dilemma. While Ramia and Carney (2003: 270) believe that, to ensure their survival and financial credibility, nonprofits are being forced to both emulate the organisational strategies of for-profit organisations while trying to maintain their social mission, making this brand of 'tightrope walking a significantly difficult act', for the first group, they will always act as directed by the organisation. If indeed, as Doug and Ray believe, the mission of the organisation has shifted even further toward financial objectives and away from a more social mission, then for this group, this shift will make little difference to their reporting regime. As discussed earlier, this group justify their actions in 'duty to the organisation' by adhering to the guidelines. Similarly, ECs in the second group are more likely than not to place duty to the organisation before the welfare of the client. While they may understand this situation as an 'ethical problem', for them it is not a dilemma. The ethical dilemma in implementing the Welfare-to-work policy in this study is only experienced by the third group of ECs.
These ECs must sometimes choose between the interests of the organisation and the welfare of the client. This is a difficult choice, especially when they believe the impact on some clients is too punitive. Street-level workers, unlike those at the top of hierarchical organisational structures like DEWR, do not see citizens as 'abstractions but as individuals' and, therefore, their relationships with their clients are often 'personal and emotional, rarely cold and rational' (Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2000: 334). As Kelly (1994) explains, it is a commitment to the ethical principles of justice and respect that can help explain the reasons for the covert actions street-level workers take, which may be inconsistent with policy regulations.
The new DEWR contract entered into by nonprofit DEN organisations has created challenges for front-line employment consultants in their interactions with clients who now have an obligation to seek employment or face a potential financial penalty. These set of policies have fundamentally changed the way in which these organisations and employment consultants work with people. The nature of the professional relationship has shifted from one based on a voluntary arrangement, where the client seeks out the agency for assistance, to one of compulsion where the client must work with an agency or face potential loss of social security income. ECs in this study were very cognisant of DEWR being procedures orientated and driven by macro-economic interests quite unlike the former funding department, the Department of Family and Community Services.
These institutional changes have created ethical challenges at the front-line, particularly in relation to the practice of whether to issue a participation report in the case of a suspected welfare-to-work activity breach. All ECs seemed to understand when they are required to lodge participation reports with Centrelink. While there is room in these guidelines for some discretion, ECs do not have the authority to 're-write the rules'. In situations where ECs sometimes practice outside the guidelines, the reason for this non-compliance lies not with any misunderstanding of the parameters of their discretionary power but in the conflict that exists between these parameters they consider too punitive and their personal value systems, based on an ethics of virtue and respect for the client. This values conflict is especially challenging for some ECs.
Although almost all ECs are, in principle, accepting of the Welfare-to-work policy to the extent that they believe that paid employment is desirable, some are quite critical of the punitive legislative requirements relating to certain groups of people with disability. For these ECs, the inequities within the policy mean that some people with a disability are being chastised for needing financial assistance from government. In part, what this front-line worker resistance reveals is a reluctance to accept the new role expected of them in the implementation of welfare-to-work policies. They are reluctant to accept the role of compliance officer because they identify more strongly with the traditional social mission of the organisation and the values of human service work. In other words, they are resisting their prescribed moral position in the social politics of welfare-to-work policies. As shown, these ECs tend to be very empathetic toward their clients and are fully committed to the notion of social justice.
The more empathetic ECs are, the more they are likely to transgress the DEWR guidelines. Paradoxically, it is these very value systems that have historically been compatible with the traditional social mission of the organisation in which they are employed, but which now in the context of new welfare-to-work policies leaves them with the dilemma of 'who to serve'? How this dilemma is managed by individual employment consultants will not only potentially put workers at odds with their contract managers, it may ultimately cost the organisation its future contracts to provide services in the new market place of disability employment. The broader public policy question is whether such an outcome would be in the public interest.
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(1) Since this study was completed, the Rudd Labor Government has been sworn in (3 December 2007) and renamed these Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).
(2) Gender is not analysed in this study. Pseudonyms have been used to preserve the anonymity of participants and are not gender specific.
(3) The policy of mutual obligation as it has been applied in practice has been subject to various criticism and challenges, particularly on the grounds that it is a false form of reciprocity (See Moss 2001).
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