Remaking the relations of work and welfare
Remaking the relations of work and welfare

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Remaking the relations of work and welfare

5 Personal Advisers, personal lives

What is clear from a wide range of New Deal evaluations (Dawson et al., 2000; O'Connor et al., 2001; Lewis et al., 2000) is that PAs provide a critical interface between the programme and its clients. The prominence of ‘personal’ in their title carries several meanings. Clients are allocated to PAs on a one-to-one basis, with the implication of a relationship, and of continuity. It also implies personal advice, which crosses the boundary of the informational into the distinctive needs of a particular individual.

The way in which this relationship is realised is a key to understanding how policy and ‘the personal’ meet. Historically, the contact between welfare officials and ‘clients’ has taken different forms; this is revealing about how the relationship is constituted. We explore this next.

Activity 6

Look at Figures 5 and 6. Pick out any signs that suggest how the relationship between official and client is constituted, inferring what you can from the finer detail.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Men seeking work at the Labour Exchange, Wigan, 11 November 1939
Figure 6
Figure 6: New Deal interview, Hackney Job Centre, London, 2003


It is clear that these images portray two very different conceptions of how welfare officials and their clients should interact. Figure 5 is archetypal, symbolising millions of similar gendered encounters between a bureaucrat official of the old welfare state, and a waiting line of massed, anonymous claimants. All the participants are male and white. The geography of the room speaks of separation of official from claimant. A counter keeps them safely apart, and the steel framework above it suggests that there are shutters which can be erected when needed. The attire of the various actors too tells of separation: the smart white-collared, besuited official with his plastered hair and studious spectacles facing the mass of flat-caps and uncustomary neck-ties, some hidden under mufflers – all markers of class distinction. Their engagement is impersonal. The gaze of the official and of the applicants alike is downwards. They are concerned with paper records, the symbolic bureaucratic administration of statutory entitlements according to predetermined criteria. The official searches for cards that represent applicants and the applicants testify in writing to their eligibility. No words are spoken at the moment captured in the photograph, and we might imagine verbal exchanges to be brief, structured and predictable. The encounter shown in Figure 5 is an act of regulation.

In Figure 6, there is still little difficulty in distinguishing between the official and the client, but the highly formalised style, attire and geography of their distinct roles is absent. Both participants (and those behind them) are on the same side of the desk, with nothing separating them. The clues about their respective positions are less obvious. The female adviser seems smartly, but informally, dressed. The male client is dressed more casually. Their gendering is typical of their roles: most PAs are women, most NDYP clients are male. Their ‘race’ too reflects the overrepresentation of young black men on the programme. Their encounter has the hallmarks of something genuinely interpersonal – they are holding one another's attention with direct eye contact, and they are there to converse, not read and fill in forms. He speaks, she listens. The PA seems engaged with her client as a unique individual. This is closer to autonomous, personal contact between subjects rather than to the ritualised enactment of roles. It suggests an encounter that might be developmental, rather than regulating or disciplining. Yet one actor (the PA) holds most of the power, symbolised by her computer, with fast access to records, personal details and information about jobs.

The two encounters shown in Figures 5 and 6 symbolise very different ways of understanding – and theorising – how policies and personal lives meet. The first is premised on a coherent, organised state machine in which agents act as part of a chain of command, following a rule-based script in fixed, consistent ways. Such encounters are de-personalised and bureaucratised versions of the social-disciplinary rationale that underpinned the workhouse regime. This reading accords with some ‘orthodox’ Marxist analyses of how the state exercises power through institutions. Few now claim that officials slavishly serve ‘the state’, and there is ample evidence that ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (Lipsky, 1980) variously adjust, adapt, dilute, ignore or even subvert procedures and directives when their discretion dictates. Wright (2003) found clear evidence that job centre staff are strongly influenced by their own beliefs and values, which lead them to categorise clients and deal with them using sharply differentiating moral assessments.

This reading fits the personalised interaction in Figure 6, in which the relative autonomy of both actors is acknowledged. Each speaks not according to a script, but by using their discretion to negotiate an outcome within broad rules, which are open to interpretation, can be ‘worked round’ and cannot prescribe action. If the purpose remains social-disciplinary, the techniques fit the personal-developmental rationale. This interpretation is closer to post-structuralist theories of governmentality. These argue that it is through such encounters that relations of persuasion and power are enacted. Following Foucault's theories about the processes through which people's conduct of themselves is governed, Rose (1999) argues that:

To dominate is to ignore or to attempt to crush the capacity for action of the dominated. But to govern is to recognise the capacity for action and to adjust oneself to it. To govern is to act upon action. This entails trying to understand what mobilises the domains or entities to be governed: to govern one must act upon these forces, instrumentalise them in order to shape actions, processes and outcomes in desired directions. Hence, when it comes to governing human beings, to govern is to presuppose the freedom of the governed. To govern humans is not to crush their capacity to act but to acknowledge it and to utilise it for one's own objectives.

(Rose, 1999, p. 4, emphasis added)

The task of PAs, then, is to find what motivates (or mobilises) their clients, to shape it in ways which can be realised through the programmes on offer (to instrumentalise it), and to induce them into those programmes. Part of this will involve careful listening to individual priorities and preferences. It may also involve persuasion that one activity leads to another more desirable possibility. And part may involve inducing a realistic approach to what is available.

The more difficult these processes of negotiation, compromise and adjustment, the greater will be the need for pressure through establishing norms by means of discourses that assert that welfare is always the product of someone's work, and that it is a matter of personal responsibility to be the provider of one's own welfare by working. As welfare subjects become imbued with this thinking, through their relationship with their PA, they begin to rely less on being governed by the PA's interventions, and begin instead to govern themselves.

Rose (1999) argues that welfare-to-work programmes epitomise the governance of disapproved social behaviour, through moral pressures upon individual conduct. What might once have been treated as social-disciplinary issues are recast as behaviours in need of remoralisation, through which the dominant discourses of PAs get inside the thinking of unemployed people and harness their energies towards making themselves ready for employment. Their clients become party to the belief that they are responsible for their own employment, and that expecting welfare support without work is socially irresponsible. In this way, PAs are charged with reconstituting their clients as responsible, self-governing subjects, and as worker-citizens of enterprising economies. Social-disciplinary purposes are largely masked by personal-developmental practices. And it is in this way that social policies shape personal lives. What is less clear is how far this theory allows that such strategies may fail, in the face of resistance.

Feminist post-structuralists would inflect this interpretation by focusing on the predominance of women in PA roles, who are presumed to use the skills of responsiveness that women develop as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers to negotiate potentially conflicting interests by appreciating the needs of others and accommodating them. It is a key tenet of feminist epistemology and methodology that ‘the personal’, and lived experience, are at the centre of theoretical and empirical work. Feminism often works outward from ‘the personal’ through dilemmas and contradictions towards the policies that frame them, rather than vice versa.

This has profound implications for the kinds of evidence that make it possible to understand how welfare and work are contingent upon one another and the way that personal lives intersect with welfare policies. Such evidence is located in millions of encounters in which welfare subjects are constituted, or resist being constituted, as responsible self-governing worker-citizens. Hence, it is only qualitative studies that can successfully unpack the biographies of personal lives in order to track the power relations of work and welfare. In this case, tables, maps and audits offer little insight into how ‘the personal’ and social policies are mutually constitutive, and how constitution is resisted. This course began with Tamarla Owens' biography, and it is to another that we now turn to advance this argument.


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