The activating profession: coaching and coercing in the welfare services
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PURPOSE: Activation policies are key elements of contemporary welfare reform throughout Europe. The purpose of this paper is to explore the consequences of more active and individualised welfare policies for conceptualisations of professionalism and competence in the welfare services. Design/methodology/approach The primary data are 25 qualitative interviews with street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) conducted in two local offices in The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). These data were supplemented by relevant policy documents. A distinction between the authorities discourse of organisational professionalism and the SLBs discourse of occupational professionalism is applied to structure the analysis. FINDINGS: Efforts to professionalise activation work takes place in the absence of a specific professional knowledge base to guide daily work. The paper explores how relevant competence and skills are defined in such a context, both from the perspective of the authorities and from the front-level workers themselves. A key finding is that such competence tends to be defined in terms of the ability to manage communicative processes and relations. Paradoxically, the active turn in social policy with its emphasis on work and activity seems to entail a competence ideal that is inward looking and psychologised. Research limitations/implications The qualitative approach implies limited generalisability in terms of statistical representativity. Furthermore, the results invite closer studies of the practical effects for social security users of the identified patterns. Practical implications Policy makers who aim to make welfare services more work orientated should look for ways of increasing SLBs concrete relations with and practical experience from collaboration with employers. This may entail reviewing the practice of outsourcing the implementation of active measures to private actors. Originality/value The paper adds to a small literature on the implementation of activation policy in contemporary welfare states.