Seminar : Digitalisation Of Public Employment Services
The emergence of public employment services led to the construction of national labour markets. These institutions enabled – and sometimes coerced – individuals to move within a unified space, breaking down the tax borders of each city, leading to intense movements from the countryside to the city, and disconnection between birthplace and working area. In short, instead of depending on their local corporation or personal network (Luciani 1990), job seekers resorted to a national institution and its agents, which proposed to the inhabitants of one part of the country to apply for job advertisements located at the other end, or to change their profession to move towards sectors in need of manpower.
However, the activity carried out by the agents and the interviews they conduct with the unemployed are technically mediated. The history of public employment services is the history of a succession of technical tools, whose historical evolution partly prescribes what is possible or not, imaginable or unimaginable, costly or free, for employment policies. Handwritten notebooks, printed lists, landline telephones, punch cards and computers successively changed social relations at the desk, contact, follow-up and archiving of the unemployed. Computers are now present in every room of European employment agencies: directly available in the halls to the jobseekers, in the offices for compulsory meetings between unemployed and advisers, in the administrative back office to manage the activity. The global computerisation of intermediation has thus led to digitization of compensation payments, training opportunities and encoding of the labour force. It rehabilitated the old cybernetic dream of an immediate and adjusted placement (Pillon 2015), also called a 'matching' between supply and demand.
This interest in digital tools implies the simultaneous study of their discrete forms and the controversies involved. It is true that in everyday life, most software, servers and applications are mobilised without controversy. They therefore constitute an invisible form of public regulation of practices. However, recently, controversies have been emerging that highlight the ignored, latent, implicit or even hidden consequences of the algorithms and data manipulated by the public employment service for different vulnerable social groups (Allhutter et al. 2020; Prietl 2019).
This seminar proposes to explore the challenges of the dematerialisation of public employment services. On the one hand, putting the unemployed at a distance responds to very old preoccupations – in terms of placement, as shown by the cybernetic dream of instantaneous contact among the inventors of the labour exchanges, or in terms of discipline, as illustrated by the marked mistrust among senior civil servants in most European countries in the 1930s and 1940s, who were anxious not to concentrate a mass of unemployed people in the same space (Buchner 2015). On the other hand, dematerialisation introduces new logics of public action, based on an original division of public-private work with possibly foreign service providers, increases the discretion of political choices and reconfigures the inequalities of use among users and agents. These two challenges reshape the identity of the unemployed and their social citizenship (Sztandar-Sztanderska and Zielenska 2018).
But to analyse them, this seminar also intends to open the black box of software, applications and programs themselves. Rather than studying dematerialisation as a global digital process, which many studies have already accomplished, we consider the variations of digital tools across countries, institutions, and even agencies. In doing so, we consider the software of public intermediation - whether the purpose, for management, data collection, intermediation, matching… - as political scripts that equip individuals unequally to face different challenges, depending on their interface and the categories integrated (Clouet 2021). In this respect, the seminar engages in a double critique of the digital equipment of the public employment service: an external critique, devoted to the articulation between the software and the use of the administration or the labour market, as well as an internal critique, devoted to the social effects of the software itself.