Re-imagining public employment as part of the future of work

By Kate Philip, Specialises in innovation in public employment

In partnership with South Africa’s Community Work Programme, Nal’ibali trains participants in story-telling methods, as part of early childhood development. (Photo: Nal’ibali Trust)

 ‘Work is not just a means for distributing purchasing power. It is also among the most important sources of identity and purpose in individuals’ lives. If the role of work in society is to shrink, other sources of purpose and identity will need to grow.’(Ryan Avent in the Guardian 19/9/2016).

The future of work is expected to bring many changes in the workplace. But it is the changes in society that are the focus here, because of the myriad impacts this future may have on identity, the social fabric, inclusion and the meaning of work in society. The challenges likely to arise cannot be addressed with income transfers alone. Instead, if technological change creates a significant decline in the demand for labour, then societies will need more fundamental alternatives to the current models in which markets are given primacy.

What does this mean? The starting point is to recognise that even when labour has no market value, it can create social value – and cultural, environmental and economic value too. How to unlock this power?

Despite all the unknowns about the future of work, it is certainly likely to be disruptive, with a decline in demand for many existing forms of labour even if, in the best case scenarios, this is replaced with new forms of demand. For a transition period at least, it is likely that those with skills that are no longer needed will find it hard to re-invent themselves, with resultant labour market dislocation, exclusion and rising inequality.

Recognition of this has led to an increasing embrace of the concept of a Universal Basic Income grant (UBI). Certainly, access to income matters (a great deal). However, a narrow focus on income transfers misses the bigger picture of the social role work plays in people’s lives and the impacts a structural decline in the demand for labour will have on society – with a need to re-assert the ‘social’ within our concept of social protection.

For the unemployed, the effects of income loss can be severe; but so are the non-income effectsand while these often negatively reinforce each other, the latter exist even where strong social protection systems mitigate the loss of income. Unemployed people complain of a lack of structure in their lives, a lack of purpose to getting up in the morning. They experience a loss of self-esteem and although this is often partly about an inability to contribute to the household it is also about not being a productive part of society, about the loss of a sense of identity and place in the community. Unemployed people become more socially isolated; their networks decline. Unemployment often leads to depression and to stress-related health effects; substance abuse rises. In the quest for inclusion and a sense of belonging, young people may get involved in gang-related activity. Domestic violence increases, so does divorce and suicide. All of this creates significant social costs.

In addition, the longer people are unemployed, the more they lose the skills and disciplines of work. Those that never work may never build them. This is not just about formal skills, but also about the intangible capabilities that participation in work builds: team-work, initiative, accountability, communication, efficiency – and also, the skills of organisation, of asserting rights, such as through participation in trade unions. These all contribute to building agency; they all also matter in the wider society, which is poorer without them.

The workplace also plays an unrecognised role in building multi-culturalism, bringing people from different races, religions and cultures together, working in teams and building shared experiences. Participation in the workplace has also been a driver of change in gender relations – with spin-offs in the home rather than vice versa.

Important as income security is, UBI is paid to individuals or households. It has no intrinsic propensity to integrate people into networks beyond the family or to build the many capabilities associated with participation in work. Of course, not everyone who needs an income can work, not everyone wants to. Some remarkable individuals may be able to use UBI to ‘self-start’. But for many, participation in work has meaning – and requires structure. This social dimension of the role of work in society needs to form part of debate on the future of work, along with the design of instruments that enable economic inclusion when markets don’t.

The bottom line is that employment – or the opportunity to participate in work – matters too much to society to leave to markets alone. Doing so gives markets primacy in shaping societies, when societies should be shaping markets. Markets are part of society, they are social constructs, and societies have the power to construct them differently – to govern them differently – to deliver different social and distributional outcomes.

This requires socially-funded alternatives, with job guarantees representing the ‘universal’ alternative to the concept of universal income. In this regard, India has led the way, with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)offering the closest real example of policy innovation in this regard. MGNREGA guarantees every rural household 100 days of work per annum provided by the state. While not universal, the Act has fundamentally changed the underlying rights framework within the rural labour market. Instead of the right to work meaning a right to work when work is available, there is now – within the limits defined – a right to work when work is needed. Not as a short-term, crisis response, but as an ongoing feature of the labour market. It is a fundamental change to the social contract, in which society takes responsibility for ensuring a minimum level of access to work, even when markets fail to do so.

Certainly, implementation of MGNREGA is uneven and has faced challenges. A programme that rolls out to over 50 million people in its first five years will tend to do so – as will any form of breakthrough social innovation. The point is to recognise just what a fundamental shift it represents: from responsibility for employment outcomes being a market function, to a rights-based approach to economic inclusion, with a level of responsibility assumed by society.

So, India has done it. But in many contexts, the political economy of winning a job guarantee faces as many if not more obstacles as UBI. Yet even without institutionalising a right to work, public employment models can experiment with the possibilities – and at meaningful scale. Public employment programmes (PEPs) – or public works programmes – have a long history. OK, it’s true: their reputation is not always stellar. Fiscal constraints, poor labour practices, bad policy choices and a lack of imagination have often not helped.


This is where the ‘re-imagining’ comes in.

But it is also true that innovation in the past and the present illustrates the scope for very different – even transformative– approaches. In the New Deal in the 1930’s in the USA, the dams are remembered but the scale at which writers, artists and playwrights were involved is often forgotten. The Federal Art Project supported some 200,000 artworks, including works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The Federal Writers Project employed authors, playwrights, and poets, including more than 6,000 people contracted to produce travel guides for 48 states, with geography, history, culture, maps, drawings, and photographs.

In Greece, in the context of the crisis, workers applying to Kinofelis(the public employment programme) included many who were highly skilled. So, in addition to work opportunities for unskilled people, the programme also deployed psychologists to provide counselling in communities, physiotherapists to provide services to the elderly, nurses to enhance community care, archaeologists to break new ground on historical sites, vets to neuter stray animals and IT specialists to design tourism apps. There is huge scope for innovation in the types of work recognised as contributing to the public good.

In South Africa, the premise of the Community Work Programmeis that there is no shortage of work to be done in poor communities, despite high unemployment – and that communities are best placed to identify what work needs to be done. ‘Useful work’ is identified through participatory community-driven processes and implemented by non-profit organisations, in every municipality in the country. This leads to a multi-sectoral mix of activities – including social care, early childhood development, community radio, public art – and football for youth. In the latter case, young people are trained as community coaches and youth mentors, providing regular structured activity and support to far larger numbers of youth than are in the programme itself. Youth-driven approaches are tackling gender-based violence. Research shows impacts on violence prevention. A PEP approach used 750 young people to undertake tablet-based local economic surveys. There is no reason why public employment should not be part of the knowledge economy, nor involve IT – with many public-interest applications of such work.

In the process, re-imagined PEPsprovide an instrument that can strengthen ‘the social’ in the face of growing forces of fragmentation, contributing to all of the following:

  • Community-driven processes to identify work that enhance local quality of life – often as part of ‘placemaking’ – in the process unlocking local agency too.
  • The positive social impacts of participation in work for participants, including networks, teamwork, self-esteem and new capabilities.
  • Opportunities to reach large cohorts of people beyond the programme – through activities for youth, care of children, support to the elderly, community libraries or community events that provide platforms for artists and musicians.
  • The creation of public assets and services that enable community-formation – including rehabilitation of public facilities, public art, landscaping and the creation of public parks from abandoned spaces.
  • A supportive interface with the social economy, such as through the provision of market spaces for farmers or support to social kitchens.

Public employment is a flexible instrument of the commons, for the commons that can strengthen the glue holding the more fragile parts of society together when rampant unemployment, labour market dislocation and inequality threaten their fabric. We need instruments that do this. Whether in the form of job guarantees or not, PEPs have a place as part of the future of work – but are no less relevant in many contexts today: which is when the policy imagination and the experimentation should begin, because the future of work (and the future of societies) starts right now.

Optional at the end:

Kate Philip initiated the design of the Community Work Programme in South Africa; through the ILO, she supported the government of Greece in the development of Kinofelis; she contributes annually to a course on innovation in public employment at the International Training Centre of the ILO, works with the African Centre for Cities on PEPs and Placemaking and currently supports innovation in public employment in the cities for the Cities Support Programme in South Africa. She is author of ‘Markets on the Margins: Mineworkers, job creation and enterprise development’ (James Currey, 2018).