Client Participation and Conditionality: Navigating Conflicting Normative Demands in Employment Services

Published date01 May 2023
AuthorMathias Herup Nielsen,Merete Monrad
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(5) 802 –823
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997231157750
Client Participation
and Conditionality:
Navigating Conflicting
Normative Demands in
Employment Services
Mathias Herup Nielsen1
and Merete Monrad1
The further involvement of citizens in the processing of their own cases
is attracting attention as a possible strategy for improving the quality of
employment services across national borders. However, employment
services are characterized by detailed regulation and strong elements
of conditionality. This article utilizes Bernardo Zacka’s framework on
morality at the street level, drawing on focus group interviews to analyze
how caseworkers in Denmark experience and deal with such demands for
increased client participation. (1) We map four normative considerations
that are emphasized by our informants: legality, authenticity, realism, and
resonance. (2) In doing so, we outline two central cross-pressures that arise
as they strive to balance client participation with conditionality in practice,
namely between legality and authenticity, on the one hand, and between
realism and resonance, on the other hand. (3) Finally, we unfold three coping
strategies pursued by caseworkers to dampen such tensions: dividing the
self, dissolving contradictions, and disassembling clients’ wishes. We add to
the literature by studying coping strategies from a perspective that carefully
highlights the normative elements of employment service work—the values
1Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Mathias Herup Nielsen, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg University,
Frederikskaj 10B, Copenhagen 2450, Denmark.
1157750AAS0010.1177/00953997231157750Administration & SocietyNielsen and Monrad
Nielsen and Monrad 803
frontline workers attribute particular importance to and strive to actualize
in their work.
employment services, client participation, coping strategies, normative
considerations, cross-pressures, conditionality
Frontline worker in the job center during an interview:
“[I tell the client that] it is your plan, and we’re going to succeed with it
together. So it is not a plan I am making for you. It is your plan, and I believe
that we will succeed with the direction you have chosen. Of course,
sometimes, you meet someone where their biggest dream is to do telepathy
with horses—I’ve experienced that—and where we have to explain that
maybe that’s more like a hobby. Because we know that it might not be
realistic to be employed as such.”
Ideas such as coproduction and cocreation, client participation, and empow-
erment are widely discussed as possible strategies for heightening the quality
of public service delivery (McMullin, 2021). This is also the case for employ-
ment services, where such ideas have become buzzwords that have gained
increased attention (M. P. Hansen et al., 2022; Larsen & Caswell, 2022;
Lindsay et al., 2022; Torfing et al., 2019). Leaving their differences aside,
such ideas all strive to position clients as active citizens who participate as
partners in the processing of their cases. They emphasize tailored rather than
standardized solutions and ideally see clients as acting partners in the shaping
of services (Lindsay et al., 2022) and who are capable of making decisions
and taking action (Wright, 2016).
However, employment services are characterized by heavy regulation of
the frontline worker by complex rules that have evolved through countless
political reforms over the past few decades (Klindt et al., 2020) and by strong
elements of conditionality when encountering the client: they continuously
need to fulfill detailed requirements to sustain eligibility for benefits (M.
Hansen, 2019). Thus, novel ideas and techniques for client participation are
promoted in a field characterized by detailed regulation and strong elements
of conditionality. The current article offers an analysis of how this comes
across from the perspective of the caseworkers who are expected to integrate
client participation into the practical delivery of welfare services. Our theo-
retical point of departure is Zacka’s (2017) framework, which is attuned to

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