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STANDING COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT
13/04/2011
Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2011

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the parliament itself. We have not received a written submission from you. You are more than welcome to put one in if you would like to. At this point I invite you to make an opening statement. Once you have finished we will open up to questions.

Dr O’Sullivan —I will start by saying something about the research that we have been conducting. Our study is called Activating States, and it was conducted by Mark Considine, Jenny Lewis and me at the University of Melbourne. The study began in 2008 and it was jointly funded by the Australian Research Council; the National Employment Services Association, NESA; and Jobs Australia.

In 1998 we surveyed front-line staff who were delivering employment services in Australia, the UK, the Netherlands and New Zealand. We repeated the survey in 2008, although in 2008 we did not include New Zealand but we did the three other countries. In 1998, we surveyed 625 front-line staff in Australia and in 2008 we surveyed 1,512 Australian front-line employment services workers. We define ‘front-line staff’ as employment services professionals who have the job of assisting job seekers either find or retain employment. Front-line staff work directly with the job seekers and they include case managers, trainers, reception staff and reverse marketers.

Our purpose in conducting the survey was to learn more about what the impact of policy changes are at the front line. What does the system design mean for the people who are tasked with engaging directly with job seekers? Our research therefore has a very narrow focus and my comments today will be limited to an analysis of the data we have collected via these surveys as it pertains to the matter under consideration. As you can probably imagine, we collected a lot of data. There were about 100 questions in the survey and it can be cut a lot of different ways. Before I proceed I would like to remind the members that our survey was conducted in 1998 and again in 2008, so that bookends the Howard era and we have no data on the operation of Job Services Australia.

I will start with resource allocation. From the perspective that we approach employment sector research—that is, from the perspective of front-line staff who work directly with job seekers—we have noticed a range of trends that we think are pertinent to the sanctioning regime under consideration here. When making a decision about the bill, members may like to keep in mind what changes to the sanctioning regime might mean from the perspective of resource allocation. Our data shows that in 1998 Australian front-line staff saw an average of eight job seekers per day. By 2008 that had increased to 10 job seekers per day. This shift suggests that by 2008 front-line staff had less time available to work directly with job seekers and that appointments job seekers were having were necessarily shorter. This suggests a shift away from a case management style engagement with job seekers to a more administrative relationship. More job seekers seen more regularly for shorter periods of time suggests that in the 10 years in which Job Network operated there was a shift away from the case manager model, which was part of the early vision, to more of an administrative and compliance focused system.

In 2008 we asked front-line staff how they divided up their time. The results we got showed that on average front-line staff spend 46 per cent of their time in direct contact with job seekers, 28 per cent of their time on contract compliance admin, and 14 per cent of their time working with employers. Data from another question shows that one of the big changes that occurred between 1998 and 2008 was that, as front-line staff began to divide up their time differently, there was a sizable reduction in the amount of time available to work with employers. When making decisions about changes to the sanctioning regime it might be worthwhile thinking about how you would like to see front-line staff divide up their day. Given that front-line staff have a finite number of hours in which to do their job, the way in which you structure the sanctioning regime will affect how they decide to spend those hours.

Now I am going to move on to discretion at the front line. One of the strongest trends we have identified in our data is that the work front-line staff carry out has become more directed and less discretionary over time. For example, in 1998 30 per cent of respondents reported using standard client classification tools when deciding how to work with job seekers. That proportion had almost doubled to 59 per cent by 2008. This suggests that front-line staff are less able to exercise autonomy in decision making about how to best work with job seekers. Changes to the sanctioning regime proposed in the bill may also impact on the amount discretion front-line staff feel they can exercise.

A further indication of a loss of autonomy at the front line is provided by the question we asked about how influential front-line employment services staff thought their own judgement was when deciding how best to work with job seekers. In 1998, 55 per cent of those surveyed said that their own judgement was very influential. That had reduced to 26 per cent by 2008. We also asked front-line staff to what extent they felt that the computer system they used guided them in client engagement. We saw a sizeable increase in the extent to which front-line staff felt that the computer system informed their interactions with job seekers. In 1998 16 per cent of staff agreed that the computer system guided their interactions with job seekers. By 2008 that proportion had increased 42 per cent.

Now I am going to share some data on the changing sanction regime between 1998 and 2000, which may be of use to you. Our data suggests that the Australian sanctioning regime for job seekers changed substantially between 1998 and 2008. Here are some of our findings: front-line staff were asked what percentage of their clients, they believed, did not comply with their obligations. In 1998 the average was 24 per cent. By 2008 that had increased to 36 per cent. Thinking about what this data might show, one of the more reasonable explanations for that shift in perceptions of how well job seekers comply with their obligations is that the obligations or requirements placed on job seekers have increased between 1998 and 2008. An increase in the number and type of requirements means that it becomes easier for job seekers to find themselves in violation of those obligations.

It is also interesting to note that when we asked UK and Dutch front-line staff the same question, the UK front-line staff reported that, in 2008, on average 27 per cent of their job seekers did not comply with their obligations and we got a response of 22 per cent from the Dutch. Those 2008 Dutch and UK figures are much more similar to the 1998 Australian figures and quite distinct to the 2008 Australian figures. This suggests that the Australian system has become more compliance focused than other comparable systems around the world. We seem to be out in front on this issue. In 1998 and 2008 we also asked front-line staff how often they actually sanctioned job seekers. We found a sizeable increase in the number of sanctions issued. In 1998, in a two-week period, front-line staff reported sanctioning one job seeker. By 2008 that had increased to five for the same two-week period.

The finding that the Australian system is more job seeker compliance focused than it was in 1998 and also more compliance focused than other comparable countries in 2008 is further supported by other survey data. For example, we asked front-line staff under what circumstances would they normally sanction a job seeker. We then provided them with a list of scenarios and they could either answer yes or no. We found that the likelihood of sanctioning increased for all available selections in Australia. Some of those increases were really quite marked. Here are four of the really big increases: (a) a job seeker dismissed from a job or training program, from 39 per cent to 72 per cent; (b) a job seeker refused to apply for a suitable job, from 56 per cent to 81 per cent; (c) a job seeker left a training program, from 57 per cent to 72 per cent; and (d) a job seeker voluntarily left a job, from 39 per cent to 84 per cent.

This suggests that overall the system has become tougher on job seekers. We also asked front-line staff why they would decide not to sanction a job seeker. Between 1998 and 2008 we found an overall decrease in the number of reasons why a front-line member of staff would choose not to sanction somebody. Moreover, by 2008 front-line staff seemed to feel as though the sanctions were much more likely to be upheld. In 2008 we included a unique question that had not appeared in the 1998 survey. We asked front-line staff if one of the reasons why they might decide not to sanction a job seeker was because the job seeker was—to use a quote—’normally a good client and I thought it would be more effective to issue a verbal warning’. Sixty per cent of respondents chose that option, which suggests that front-line staff do not always feel that issuing a sanction is the best means of working well with their job seeker clients.

I hope you will forgive me if I am not in keeping with etiquette, but I did bring some resources that might be of interest.

CHAIR —That is great.

Dr O’Sullivan —We have an industry report, which we created in 2008, which shows some of the trends and changes to the system between 1998 and 2008. We have also got a UK report up on our website if you are at all interested in learning more about how our system might be different to the UK system.

I brought along a quite early conference paper that we presented at the Australian Political Studies Association conference which talks about the differences in the Australian system and the way in which it became more compliance focused. We have a paper that will be coming out very soon in the Journal of Social Policy and I have brought the abstract and details about that paper which, again, is about changes to the Australian employment sector. It is more comprehensive than the conference paper and when it is out, which it will be in a matter of days, you might find it of interest.

CHAIR —Are you happy for them to be made public?

Dr O’Sullivan —Yes, these are all publicly available documents.

CHAIR —We will move to take those three documents as exhibits. Thank you very much. We will just ask a few questions. I guess your data does not particularly cover this, but what this is specifically looking at is missing the initial appointment with one of the front-line staff that you described. While people’s approaches are different as to how to address that a lot of people suggest that the attendance rate for missing that initial appointment is not where we want it to be and it can be very frustrating for those front-line staff who are booking appointments and feel pressure to make sure that they are helping. Do you have any information about how staff feel when their appointments are not missed, the value that they have in their relationship with the job seeker and anything around that? Certainly, some of the submissions have alluded to the front-line staff being quite frustrated and the services being quite frustrated with the lack of attendance at appointments.

Dr O’Sullivan —We do not have really much information about that but listening to the evidence today has given me some very good ideas for what I would like to ask. We are hoping to run the survey again soon. One of the questions I would like to include is: ‘Why do you think your clients do not comply?’ or ‘If your clients do not comply, why?’ It seems to me from what I have learnt today that that is a gap in our understanding of the process and probably front-line staff have very good ideas about why this might be happening and we would like to ask them.

The data on the proportion of job seekers not meeting their obligations suggests to me that front-line staff do think that there is a stronger requirement for job seekers to show up and they find that frustrating. I would imagine that embedded in that 35 per cent is job seekers not turning up to appointments. Beyond that I cannot say.

Mr BANDT —I take it from that that you are not aware of anything in research in Australia about why people are not turning up either from the front-line side or from the perspective of recipient benefits?

Dr O’Sullivan —No, I am not. If I were called on to design some kind of research project to look into this, the very first thing I would tend to do would be to see if there is any data on how many people just do not turn up to appointments generally in the normal running of the city. For instance, when you were talking earlier about SMS reminders, my doctor sends me an SMS reminder to say I have an appointment on Monday. Who knows? Maybe it is standard for 40 percent of people not to turn up to basic appointments on any given day. Presumably those reminders, which are quite common among other professionals, are designed to alleviate a problem, most likely the problem of people not showing up. That would be an easy way to at least benchmark the problem. That is what I would tend to do first up.

Mr BANDT —Following on from that, it seems to me that if we are serious about evidence based policy making we would actually want a larger body of evidence before we said the reforms included in this bill should be implemented and that we have tried all other alternatives.

Dr O’Sullivan —Yes, it does seem to be a really glaring gap in the literature and one that I would be very happy to fill.

CHAIR —There could well be information on it. We can ask DEEWR about it. I do not know if there is any reporting. Obviously, you are not aware of any external gathering but DEEWR could well have information. We can ask them for any internal information.

There being no further questions, thank you very much. We really appreciate it. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence. If there is anything you would like to forward—we have the abstract, but there is that conference paper that is about to come out—feel free to send it to the committee secretary.

[3.36 pm]