Employment services policy and delivery is constantly in flux. The sector is persistently subject to design, redesign, regulation and reregulation in Australia and elsewhere. The employment services sector needs dedicated, independent, reliable research that can inform policy design and provide both government and providers with evidence of best practice.

The University of Melbourne has a long-standing research program on the reform of employment services which began in 1998 – Getting Welfare to Work: Research on Employment Services. Our research in this field continues with the latest Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project, Entitlement to Experiment: The new governance of welfare-to-work. The project aims to model and explain two organisational dynamics underlying major changes to contemporary welfare states: the shift towards governance driven by performance and the problematic way changes ‘from above’ seek to stimulate real service delivery change.

Important organisational dynamics are generating major changes to contemporary welfare states. The first is the shift towards governance driven by performance; a world of metadata matched by a new economy of incentives. The second is experimentation, new markets and the problematic way changes ‘from above’ seek to stimulate real service delivery change at street level. This increasingly involves international agencies and global knowledge transfer. We aim to model and explain these dynamics using a multidimensional framework and a mix of surveys and field visits, to assist agencies wishing to innovate in order to help those most in need. The research continues to focus on street level governance, and will be undertaking case studies to assist agencies wishing to innovate in order to help those most in need.

How have reforms affected employment services policy and delivery?

This project examines the shift from the welfare state to policies of mutual obligation that provide incentives to unemployed individuals to seek work or training.

It is led by chief investigators Professors Jenny Lewis and Mark Considine of the School of Social and Political Sciences and Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan of the University of New South Wales. They have been complemented by international collaborators in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, local PhD researchers, and Dr Phuc Nguyen as statistician.

The project began in 1998 and compares Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands to understand how governance of the sector has changed, how policymaking is understood and reformed, and the degree to which the state is involved in delivery of services or in regulating private delivery. In particular it emphasises the experiences of frontline staff within employment agencies and how reforms have affected their delivery of services.

The project is based on data compiled across the last two decades, particularly through surveys of 1,000-2,000 frontline staff in 1998, 2008, 2012, and a fourth survey to be conducted in 2016. These surveys are, in Professor Lewis’s words, “one of the backbones of the project”. They deliver an understanding of the caseload of frontline staff, their work pressures, and how they see their role.

The 2016 study will focus on Australia and the UK. The research to date has shown that the Australian and British systems have become more similar, but with one key distinction: “Australia and the UK look to each other”, observes Professor Lewis, “but there is the main difference that Australia no longer has a public provider.” Hence there is mutual influence but inevitable divergence.

A series of Australian Research Council grants have supported the project. The most recent, a Linkage Grant, involves two peak employment service organisations and one service provider: Jobs Australia (which encompasses the not-for-profit sector), National Employment Services Authority (which covers all providers), and Westgate Community Initiatives Group (a service provider in Melbourne’s inner west). These organisations value a long-term perspective on staff trends, and facilitate the involvement of frontline staff in the research.

The project has had a number of significant outcomes. Most recently, Oxford University Press published Getting Welfare to Work: Street-Level Governance in Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands, a book authored by the three chief investigators in Australia and their Dutch colleague, Assoc. Professor Els Sol, which brings together all the research conducted since 1998. Professor Considine and Dr O’Sullivan also oversaw an edited collection, Contracting-out Welfare Services: Comparing National Policy Designs for Unemployment Assistance, published by Wiley in 2015.

The project will continue into the future, analysing welfare reform in real time. Professor Lewis emphasises that this is possible on account of the strength of the partnerships with industry partners. “It is really an unusual thing. Most research projects you do, you do for a number of years and then move on. It is a testament to this being an interesting area and to us having strong relationships with our partners. They really see the value of what we are doing, and so they do not have to have their arm twisted to participate.”


Social and Political Sciences


Public Policy; Political Science


Chief investigators