Policies aimed at upskilling, motivating and/or disciplining the unemployed have remained a cornerstone of most OECD countries’ employment policies since the 1990s. Central to these policies is the idea of activation – i.e. the premise that benefit entitlement is conditional on one’s participation in some kind of activity. This article seek to understand how this idea of activation has proven so enduring by analyzing the international development of Activation Policies since 1990 through the lens offered by the concept of ideational robustness. It is analyzed how the robustness of the idea of activation has been continuously challenged through critiques raised against the effects, the legitimacy and the relevance of activation policies. Yet, in each of these moments of contest, proponents of the idea of activation succeeded in keeping the idea relevant as a point of reference for policymaking. They did so by rebalancing disciplinary and enabling approaches to activation, adding a new scope of application for activation policies, and rearticulating the underlying assumption about client agency. The analysis further reveals how these robustness mechanisms succeeded in appropriating the critiques due to their inscription within the technical and seemingly de-political language concerning effect evaluations, implementation deficits, and new forms of governance. Policymakers were thereby able to downplay normative questions of the legitimacy, fairness, and justice of activation policies. The idea of activation has thus taken on a status as an objective to be implemented as effective and efficiently as possible rather than as an idea to be discussed or challenged. However, while the idea of activation remains robust, the same cannot be said of the governance and implementation structures of activation policies. Our study suggest that the near-constant reforms of these governance arrangements and implementation structures during the last 30 years are partly a consequence of critique being skewed from the idea of activation to these structures and arrangements. The robustness of the idea of activation has thus, rather paradoxically, come about by reducing the robustness of specific activation policies and governance arrangements.
Original languageDanish
JournalPolicy and Society
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Mar 2024

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