Dr. Mira Bierbaum

New Mindsets to Innovate Activation

Year: 2019

Fred Zijlstra, Franziska Gassmann and Eleonora Nillesen


This thesis systematically rethinks activation policy by moving away from a narrow focus on individual responsibility, and by re-embedding economic actions into a social context. The need for the research was motivated by the observation that a defining feature of welfare reforms in many developed countries has been an emphasis on active welfare arrangements, framed within a discourse which focuses on the increased responsibility of the individual vis-à-vis the state. Against this background, this thesis looks at the design of the Dutch social assistance scheme and activation policy (governed by the 2015 Participation Act), mainly from the point of view of the lived experiences of recipients and with particular emphasis on their relative position in society. In a series of subsequent studies, the decision context of recipients and the effect of different activation policy instruments on their well-being and agency was examined. This directly informed the design and trial of a policy instrument, namely a self-affirmation exercise conducted during meetings between citizens and activation workers. Finally, an additional angle was added by taking into account not only citizens and their interactions with activation workers, but also the implications of activation workers’ role understanding on their actions, and the impact of their actions for the well-being and agency of citizens. The thesis concludes that the terms activation and responsibility and their uses need to be critically rethought, as they are loaded with assumptions about behaviour that not only lead to inefficient policies, but can indeed create “potential longer term, more insidious, ‘side-effects’” (Brown, 2012, p. 306).

Selected publications by Mira Bierbaum