Swimming against the tide? Street-level bureaucrats and the limits to inclusive active labour market programmes in the UK

Mathew Johnson*, Miguel Martínez Lucio, Damian Grimshaw, Laura Watt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Through a dynamic analysis of the interplay between structure and agency, this article explores the factors shaping an inclusive approach to labour market activation for clients who experience multiple barriers to work. While previous studies argue that ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (SLBs), such as advisers and job coaches, have minimal agency to shape the services they deliver, the pilot programme that is the focus of this article allowed SLBs greater discretion to support clients and to use their entrepreneurial skills to build relationships with local employers. However, the unresolved tension between personalisation and swift labour market insertion meant that SLBs often reverted to engrained employability interventions that simply prepare clients to compete for low-wage entry-level jobs. We argue that the ‘policy closure’ around a work-first model of activation in the UK constrains social innovation among SLBs, and limits the freedoms of citizens to navigate their own transitions into paid work.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021


  • active labour market programmes (ALMPs)
  • employment services
  • front-line service work
  • inclusive labour markets
  • micro-institutional theory
  • unemployment

Cite this