Professioneel handelen als puzzelen in de uitvoering van arbeidsactivering



Professioneel handelen als puzzelen in de uitvoering van arbeidsactivering 

De ontwikkeling van professioneel handelen krijgt de laatste jaren veel aandacht in het veld van arbeidsactivering. De verwachting is dat door professionalisering resultaten van activeringsdienstverlening zullen verbeteren. De vraag is echter wat precies onder professioneel handelen moet worden verstaan. In dit artikel wordt in het verlengde van onderzoek naar de uitvoering van activeringswerk en algemene wetenschappelijke perspectieven op hedendaags professionalisme een conceptualisering van professioneel handelen voorgesteld die beoogt aan te sluiten bij de vraagstukken en dilemma’s waar professionals in hun dagelijkse werk feitelijk mee te maken hebben. Uitgaande van de realiteit van het werk in het veld van arbeidsactivering, wordt professioneel handelen geconceptualiseerd als “puzzelen” rondom verschillende uitvoeringsvraagstukken: de assessment, het bepalen van ontwikkelingsmogelijkheden, het realiseren en bevorderen van wederkerigheid, de organisatie van dienstverlening binnen een sturende context van beleid en organisatie en het reflexief leren als professional en als organisatie. Uitgaande van dit concept worden onderzoeksvragen geformuleerd en wordt de relevantie van dit kader besproken voor de beroepspraktijk en opleidingen.


Professional agency as “puzzling over” the delivery of activation services

The rise of active social policies has strengthened the call for a new type of social professional in the Netherlands. Professionals are expected to focus more on stimulating the labour market participation of vulnerable groups. Improving the quality and effectiveness of their professional services is high on the agenda, partially as a result of the disappointing results of activation policies, which aim to promote the labour market inclusion of vulnerable unemployed groups receiving social benefits. In this professional field, various initiatives have been launched in recent years to promote the “professionalization” of the street-level workers who deliver activation services.


This paper questions the dominant underlying conceptualization of effective professional agency that underlies many of these initiatives and proposes an alternative conceptualization which can be used in research in relation to professional agency as well as to improve activation practice.


The quintessence of the dominant conceptualization of successful professional agency lies in the thoughtful use of evidence-based methods. According to this perspective, evidence is derived from research on the (net) effects of various types of activation methods and programmes. Within this perspective, professionalization programmes consist of researching net effects, the results of which are translated into guidelines or expert systems for frontline workers on how to do their work.


In this paper, however, it is argued that this conceptualization does not do justice to the fact that in real day-to-day practice, street-level workers are confronted with complex issues and dilemmas which cannot be solved by applying evidence-based methods alone. Based on existing research into these practices, it is argued that professionals face at least five types of issues which complicate their work:


1. The Dutch labour market is developing in a way which makes access to work increasingly difficult for vulnerable groups. Moreover, at the lower end of the labour market on which these groups mostly depend, the quality of available employment is deteriorating in terms of both remuneration and job security. In this context, finding viable routes into inclusive employment is far from easy, both for unemployed persons as well as for professionals;
2. The most vulnerable groups often face other problems besides unemployment. How to deliver effective, integrated professional services that address all these problems is still unclear. However, it is very likely that focusing on unemployment alone is not sufficient to achieve lasting outcomes;
3. Social inclusion through employment is not only about servicing the unemployed, but also about creating opportunities for employers and their companies. Achieving reciprocity between employer and unemployed is complicated but a necessary condition in order for professionals to succeed;
4. Professionals work within a broader organizational context, structured by policies and managerial choices. This context influences what they can and will do, regardless of their mastery of effective methods;
5. Even if evidence-based working is considered the best professional standard, workers in the field of activation have to deal with a far from comprehensive and complete body of knowledge. Developing this evidence base by learning in practice is a challenge in its own right.


Therefore, based on academic views on contemporary professionalism, this paper proposes an alternative conceptualization of professional agency. This conceptualization uses the metaphor of “puzzling over complex issues” to do justice to this complex service context. Based upon the five professional challenges that have been identified, professional agency is conceptualized as dealing with five types of puzzles:


1. The assessment puzzle, dedicated to getting a clear picture of the actual problems that vulnerable people may experience in terms of social exclusion, unemployment and possibly other social issues. Another part of this professional puzzle relates to making explicit individual needs, wishes and possibilities concerning employment, given the local socio-economic context;
2. The development puzzle, consisting of identifying a viable route towards sustainable and gainful employment, as well as determining which professional services and other resources are required in order to realize this route;
3. The reciprocity puzzle, which deals with two dimensions of reciprocity. First of all, the task of engaging employers and finding a fit between employers’ needs and interests and the needs and capacities of the unemployed. Secondly, activation policies themselves are often framed within a discourse of reciprocity that relates to the benefits that unemployed persons receive. This influences goal setting and can lead to dilemmas and tensions when the optimal route to inclusion according to the unemployed person is different from the routes that policies will allow for;
4. The organizational puzzle, which raises the question of how professionals should organize professional support for the route towards inclusion that has been identified. Dealing with managerial imperatives, limited resources and organizing cooperation between professionals are all part of this puzzle;
5. The learning puzzle, which consists of realizing reflexive learning processes in practice, given that the available knowledge base in this field on how to deal with the other puzzles is still very limited.


Looking at professional agency using the puzzling metaphor leads to various new research questions on the topic of contemporary (public) professionals: how do professionals deal with these puzzles in practice and how does this affect their results? How do professional skills and motivation relate to the way in which professionals deal with these puzzles and the results they achieve? How do policy and managerial choices affect how professionals deal with these puzzles? Answering these kinds of questions has practical relevance as well: it would give public service organizations a better understanding of how HRM-practices relate to professional agency and the professional development of workers. Professional schools could benefit from this approach to professional agency to develop their curricula.


Welfare-to-workactivation policyprofessionalizationprofessional agency
  • Year: 2017
  • Volume: 26 Issue: 1
  • Page/Article: 4-22
  • DOI: 10.18352/jsi.511
  • Published on 17 Mar 2017
  • Peer Reviewed