17 April 2023

The Swedish Public Employment Service was to become a modern public authority and wanted to introduce a new way of managing the organisation. Through observations and interviews conducted on site, researchers from Linköping University have examined what really happened. The results show a clear clash between the management's vision and the ordinary employment officers.

Woman at computer with the Swedish Public Employment Service home page.
Ida Seing has studied The Swedish Public Employment Services attempt at a new management philosophy. Charlotte Perhammar

“What surprises us is the culture of challenge at the Public Employment Service. The employment officers described it as if they and the management were in different worlds,” says Ida Seing from the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning at Linköping University.

In 2014, the Public Employment Service started what was called the "renewal journey". It was based on a consultation proposal that took its inspiration from the private sector. The model was called 'self-leadership'.

This meant that employees would to a greater extent manage their work independently of their manager. But it didn't end there. Job seekers were also to self-manage their cases more through the use of digital tools. The principle was to transfer responsibility from manager to individual employment officer, and from employment officer to job seekers.

Ida Seing from Linköping University and Håkan Johansson from Lund University have now examined what happened during the change phase. In 2018 and 2019, they got to go behind the scenes at the Public Employment Service. They attended internal meetings, shadowed employment officers in their work and conducted 43 interviews with employees at all levels.

Jokes and sarcasm

The study, published in the journal Sociologisk forskning, is part of a five-year project in which different aspects of both the Public Employment Service and the Swedish Social Insurance Agency are examined.

Scientist Ida Seing in front of a book shelf.A new management philosophy may result in no more than empty talk, says Ida Seing. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar The conclusion is that while the managers of the Public Employment Service largely accepted the changed way of working, there were different levels of resistance among the employment officers. Reactions were partly dependent on how the change suited the affected individuals’ personalities, and partly on how they viewed their professional role. Younger employees also adapted more than older ones.

Resistance was expressed in jokes and sarcasm, but was also more active. One employment officer who thought there were too many meetings told the managers that she was going to use her self-leadership to ignore the meeting she had been summoned to attend.

The interviews show that the employment officers feel a great sense of commitment. Following a job seeker or helping an employer gives them meaning in their work. When more and more of the responsibility was transferred to the job seekers themselves, they felt that their role was questioned. They also felt that the change was bad for people who are already vulnerable.

A strong professional identity

The difference was considerable compared with when the Social Insurance Agency underwent similar organisational change a few years earlier, according to Ida Seing. The study conducted there shows that the employees were more responsive and being 'open to change’ was part of their self-image.

The researchers conclude that the employment officers are a group with a strong professional identity, even though they do not have common professional training. This prevents them from meekly adapting to what the management says. In the end, it turned out that not even the local managers really knew how to put the new management philosophy into practice. Although everyone has to be aware of it, the risk is that it remains empty talk, says Ida Seing.

She also notes that by the end of the study the Public Employment Service was in the course of returning to stricter control, although the principle of self-leadership was still in place.

The research has been financed through Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.

Artiklar:  Practising empty talk: Compliance and resistance to normative control among caseworkers in the Swedish Public Employment Service, Håkan Johansson & Ida  Seing (2022), Sociologisk forskning, 59(3), 299-319, doi: 10.37062/SF.59.23963

When the Client Becomes Her Own Caseworker: Dislocation of Responsibility through Digital Self-Support in the Swedish Public Employment, Ylva Wallinder & Ida Seing (2022). Sozialer Fortschritt, 71(6/7), 405–423, doi: 10.3790/sfo.71.6-7.405

Translated by Simon Phillips

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