Why approach contracted-out public services as a ‘strategic action field’?

James Rees, Rebecca Taylor and Christopher Damm
James Rees, Rebecca Taylor and Christopher Damm

by James Rees, Rebecca Taylor and Chris Damm

Researching the field of UK employment services

The research reported in our article UK Employment Services: understanding provider strategies in a dynamic strategic action field was carried out in 2012 as part of the ESRC-funded Third Sector Research Centre’s programme on the third sector’s role in public services. From the outset, we were aware that the third sector had long played a significant role in the mixed economy of employment services, and this was at a point when the UK Coalition government’s new Work Programme was being implemented. Our key interest was to explore the ways in which the third sector was involved in this new programme, and to examine to what extent its contribution could be seen as distinctively different to that of other sectors.

Internationally, few studies have directly addressed the role of sector of organisations, and where they do, they rarely do so in a comparative manner: focusing for instance on the third sector in isolation. Instead, we set out to explore how private, public and third sector providers might interpret the changing environment and develop strategies in different ways.

Even at an early stage in the research, we were struck by how respondents from a wide variety of organisations played down the significance of the sector and instead highlighted the importance of the ‘industry’ or field: variously described as welfare to work or ‘employment services’.

What really seemed to influence organisations’ experience of the Work Programme was size, and flowing from this their capacity and level of knowledge about their own ‘field’, their ‘savvy’ if you like. But equally crucial was the position they occupied within the programme: that is, what level they sat at in the hierarchy from ‘Prime provider’ to ‘end to end’ to specialist subcontractor.

It is important to understand how the design of the Work Programme had changed the ‘rules of the game’ within the employment services market and created an ‘unsettlement’ within the field. Our research sheds light on the different ways in which the rules changed.

Making sense of an unsettled field…

Turning next to a more theoretically-based understanding of the employment services field, we looked to recent developments in sociology and in particular the recent work of Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam, which in turn rests on the shoulders of a giant body of work in the new institutionalist and social movements traditions.

Fligstein and McAdam’s 2012 general theory of fields aims to better account for stability and change in collective social life. We argue that employment services in the UK can be usefully characterised in this way. They define a strategic action field (SAF) as a meso-level social order (a grouping of individuals, organisations and institutions) within which actors maintain a common set of understandings about their respective positions, and rules for what behaviour is legitimate and ‘makes sense’. Providers compete for position, power and resources in the field, which in this case is mainly funded through contracts for delivering employment programmes.

The Work Programme is effectively a SAF nested inside the wider employment services field, constituted by a particular group of contracted providers and a particular set of rules. It demonstrates Fligstein and McAdam’s conceptualisation of fields as continually in flux and often subject to periods of unsettlement or just ‘routine, rolling turbulence’. In our paper we describe the ways in which the early stages of the programme witnessed just such an upheaval as providers struggled to make sense of the new rules and relationships within the Work Programme.

According to Fligstein and McAdam, such direct interventions by a powerful actor (ie the state) can result in a crisis, or more usually an episode of contention, marked by a shared sense of uncertainty regarding the (new or unsettled) rules and power relations within the field. Through our research we were able to capture some of what providers were doing to make sense of the new environment and responding with strategies to mitigate uncertainty and risk (or indeed failing to do either!).

Despite some points of divergence discussed in the paper we feel that Fligstein and McAdam’s’s work is helpful in showing how increasingly complex public service delivery landscapes can be understood as fields of activity in which organisations are both competing and interdependent, can mutually constitute new rules and relationships, and make sense of and react to the dynamic external environment.

It challenges the simplistic notion that providers are interchangeable pawns within state policy agendas, bringing agency right back in. Finally, for us, given our starting point in seeking to understand the relevance and social construction of sector identities and boundaries, we found field theory a strong insight in challenging some of the reductionist ways that sector has been applied as a category to understand organisational behaviour.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you may be interested in a similar article: International governmental organisations and global youth unemployment: the normative and ideational foundations of policy discourses by Ross Fergusson & Nicola Yeates.

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