Power Relations in the Welfare State: Mechanisms of Power in Caseworker-Client Interactions

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:45
Oral Presentation
Monika SENGHAAS, Institute for Employment Research, Germany
Peter KUPKA, Institute for Employment Research (IAB), Germany
Carolin FREIER, Institute for Employment Research, Germany
Following Michael Lipsky’s well known argument that policy is made in the daily encounters between frontline workers and citizens, a growing body of research emphasises that actors and organisations delivering social and labour market policy play a crucial role in welfare state politics. Our paper examines the role of the professional group of caseworkers in the context of activation policies in Germany. Building on the theoretical perspective of street-level bureaucracy, we point out that relations between caseworkers and clients are characterised by a structural power asymmetry, resulting from the fact that welfare agencies provide services which citizens cannot obtain elsewhere. Based on that assumption, our paper explores how caseworkers interpret their relations with clients and what resources they develop in the process of policy delivery. Empirically, the analysis draws on qualitative data (interviews and group discussions) collected in three local employment agencies in Germany.

The findings show that in the context of activation policies, it is essential for caseworkers to achieve client compliance. In order to keep control of the work situation and to bring client behaviour in line with requirements, caseworkers regard coercive and disciplinary elements as an important element of their work. However, strategies relying on persuasion play an equally prominent role in frontline interactions. Caseworkers in particular refer to building relationships of trust as a strategic instrument in overcoming possible barriers to information exchange and cooperation in caseworker-client interactions. Motivating the client to become a trust-giver in the caseworker-client relationship may help frontline workers to steer the client and to consolidate the structural power asymmetry between street-level bureaucrats and their clients. We conclude that caseworkers in welfare agencies use power in different ways. Apart from coercion, persuasive strategies such as trust building are mechanisms of power in caseworker-client relations.