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

Articles (journal, professional, popular)
Bierbaum, Mira, Markus Kaltenborn, Valérie Schmitt & Nicola Wiebe, 2021, `Financing universal social protection during COVID-19 and beyond: Investing more and better, Policy in Focus, 19, More information
Bierbaum, Mira & Eleonora Nillesen, 2021, `Sustaining the integrity of the threatened self: A cluster-randomised trial among social assistance applicants in the Netherlands, PLoS ONE, 16, More information
Razavi, Shahra, Christina Behrendt, Mira Bierbaum, Ian Orton & Lou Tessier, 2020, `Reinvigorating the social contract and strengthening social cohesion: Social protection responses to COVID-19, International Social Security Review, 73
Stern Plaza, Maya, Mira Bierbaum & Christina Behrendt, 2019, `Universal social protection: Key concepts and international framework, Policy in Focus, 17, More information

Book chapters
Bierbaum, Mira & Veronika Wodsak, 2021, Coordination of different instruments, in: E. Schüring & M. Loewe, Handbook of Social Protection Systems, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, More information

UNU-MERIT Working Papers
Al Raee, Mueid, Elvis Amoateng, Elvis Avenyo, Youssef Beshay, Mira Bierbaum, Charlotte Keijser & Rashmi Sinha, 2014, Millennium Development Goals: Tool or token of global social governance?, UNU-MERIT Working Paper 2014-024
Bierbaum, Mira & Franziska Gassmann, 2012, Chronic and transitory poverty in the Kyrgyz Republic: What can synthetic panels tell us?, UNU-MERIT Working Paper 2012-064

External working papers
Bierbaum, Mira & Valérie Schmitt, 2022, Investing more in universal social protection. Filling the financing gap through domestic resource mobilization and international support and coordination, More information
Bierbaum, Mira & Valérie Schmitt, 2022, Investing better in universal social protection. Applying international social security standards in social protection policy and financing, More information
Bierbaum, Mira & Michael Cichon, 2019, Costing of a package of family-friendly transfers and services to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment: An introduction to the calculations and results, More information
Bierbaum, Mira, Cäcilie Schildberg & Michael Cichon, 2017, Social Protection Floor Index 2017: Update and Country Studies, More information
Bierbaum, Mira, Annalena Oppel, Sander Tromp & Michael Cichon, 2016, Social Protection Floor Index: Monitoring national social protection policy implementation, Berlin, Germany: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Research reports
Bierbaum, Mira, 2016, Belemmerde Vrijheid? Ervaringen met de Participatiewet, Onderzoeksverslag t.b.v. Sociale Dienst Maastricht-Heuvelland

Conference contributions
Bierbaum, Mira, 2018, Professional judgements at work? A factorial survey experiment on activation workers' decision-making, International Conference on Welfare Conditionality, York University, United Kingdom, June 26-28
Bierbaum, Mira, 2018, Lost agency? Lived experiences of social assistance recipients in an activating welfare state, International Conference on Welfare Conditionality, York University, United Kingdom, June 26-28
Bierbaum, Mira, 2016, Monitoring national social protection policy implementation: Introduction of the new Social Protection Floor Index, International Conference on Social Protection and ASEM 2016: Achieving Social Security for All in Asia and Europe, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 5-6
Bierbaum, Mira, 2016, Individual experiences of living on social assistance: Activation, social structures, and agency, Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) Annual Conference, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan, September 1-3
Bierbaum, Mira & Franziska Gassmann, 2016, Individual experiences of living on social assistance: Activation, capabilities and social exclusion, Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM) International Conference, London School of Economics, United Kingdom, June 13-14

Bierbaum, Mira, 2019, New Mindsets to Innovate Activation, PhD dissertation Maastricht University / United Nations University, More information

Bierbaum, Mira & Franziska Gassmann, 2016, Belemmerde vrijheid? Ervaringen met de Participatiewet, Policy Brief No. 2, 2016, Dutch version, More information
Bierbaum, Mira & Franziska Gassmann, 2016, Limits of Freedom? Experiences with the Participation Act, Policy Brief No 2, 2016, English version, More information

Other (editorship, media appearance, keynote, etc.)
Behrendt, Christina, Mira Bierbaum, Tomoo Okubo, Shahra Razavi, David Stewart, Natalia Winder-Rosse & Veronika Wodsak, 2022,, A hopeful sign in the COVID-19 pandemic has been the crucial role that social protection has played, evident in the unprecedented policy response worldwide with social protection and jobs measures pursued by virtually all countries and territories, albeit with staggering inequalities in countries’ response capacity. Undoubtedly, without this massive and rapid expansion of social protection, based on strong political will and commitment, the human and socio-economic toll of the crisis would have been much greater. While all these extra measures have been incredibly valuable, they were also mostly temporary, and there is little sign of increased long-term investment in social spending to the extent that will be required to build back better after the COVID-19 crisis. Many countries now find themselves at a crossroads with regard to the future orientation of their national social protection strategies and systems. Going forward, without strategies to build and finance sustainable social protection systems, create decent jobs, and formalize enterprises and employment, these programmes will remain just that: temporary and unsustainable, More information
Bierbaum, Mira, Veronika Wodsak & Christina Behrendt, 2022,, The multiple crises we are currently confronted with, including the COVID-19 pandemic, violent conflicts, climate change and environmental degradation, painfully remind us of everyone’s vulnerability to shocks and lifecycle risks. Workers in the informal economy and their families are particularly vulnerable, not least because of their lack of access to social protection. Investing in social protection and employment policies is critical for a more inclusive recovery, decent work and a just transition to environmentally sustainable economies and societies, More information
Bierbaum, Mira & Michael Cichon, 2016, UNU-MERIT Blog, More information