11 April 2013
Over the past decades, governments of western democracies have attempted to retrench their welfare state or at least attempted to restructure established institutions in order to make them more cost efficient and responsive. Popular narratives of welfare state change tend to draw on a simplified view of change. Management reforms are typically described as cascading down from the global level down to the level of individual experience. Changes are portrayed as unidirectional and characterised by clear distinction between the past and the present. Organisational and sociological strands of institutional theory on the other hand, tend to highlight how efforts to change institutions are deflected, diluted or absorbed so as to conform with prior norms and behavioral patterns on the operational level. They are useful to understand forces of continuity rather than explaining how welfare institutions change.
Drawing on empirical evidence from the Norwegian homecare sector, it is argued that in order to understand the dynamic of change, institutional theories should take into consideration that efforts to impose changes on welfare institutions may be influenced by a range of stakeholders pursuing different values, knowledge and ideas on how service should be governed and organised. Changes are driven ”from above” by policymakers and executives and “from below” by service staff who are supposed to put ideas into practice. At all levels, the process is influenced by consultants, user-organisations, trade unions, popular movements and mass media. Grounded in this empirical research, this paper suggests that the dynamic of change is best understood as an uneven and contested process characterised by efforts to resolve dilemmas and tension stemming from conflicting values and policy agendas. Administrative reforms may provoke and enforce resistance and competing policy agendas, they may become entangled with and indirectly act as facilitator for alternative policy agendas or they may be used creatively to support and sustain established patterns of practice.
Dr Mia Vabø is a senior researcher at the Norwegian Social Welfare Institute (NOVA) in Oslo, Norway. She is a sociologist with expertise in governance and organisational theory, with a focus on eldercare.
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