This thesis examines how policy promoted as benefiting the users of human services can fail if it does not appreciate the front-line contexts its implementation depends on. The specific concern is how front-line practitioners in non-profit human services understood and responded to the application of service user rights policies to their practice settings.
The study begins with the Hawke–Keating period of government, and ends in the late 1990s. During the Hawke–Keating period service user rights policies were explicitly incorporated into a range of Commonwealth human service programs as one manifestation of the new program management (NPM) approach to accountability and control.
Four Australian human service programs were sampled: the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP), the Home and Community Care Program (HACC), Adolescent Mediation and Family Therapy services (AMFT), and the Youth Homeless Pilot Programme (YHPP). Services from each program in Melbourne, Wollongong, Darwin and the Gold Coast were studied. Forwards and backwards mapping were used to examine the nexus between policy as intended, and policy as understood by those undertaking direct service delivery with young people.
The place ‘rights-talk’ had in the practice framework of these front-line practitioners was examined and compared with the espoused policy positions of the programs and the funded services they worked within. The various factors conditioning the workers’ approach to the service user rights aspects of practice were identified. The thesis concludes that front-line human service workers, whose practice is highly contextualised, thwart human service program design unless this design reflects the model of service delivery. Front-line bureaucracy theory was found to apply.
The study details the tension between the various contexts of front-line practice and the service user rights policy framework. The level of connection with people and social institutions in the life situation of the young service user, combined with the extent to which the mandated model of service delivery was flexible or prescribed, were found to influence front-line practitioners’ approach to service user rights.
The emergence and later failure of service user rights program logic to take hold was found to be a manifestation of the de-institutionalisation of non-profit organisations as they were required to re-orient the basis of their legitimacy to new public management ideals.
The significance of the thesis lies in its contribution to understanding the nexus between human service policy and front-line practice. More specifically, it assists in theory development about the relationship between emergent ideas about human service delivery and the contexts of their implementation.