Capability as a yardstick for flexicurity

Lehweß-Litzmann, René (2014). 'Capability as a yardstick for flexicurity' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Flexicurity is a European policy agenda seeking to increase both flexibility and security in the national labour-markets. Though different from an approach centred solely on flexibility, flexicurity has been heavily contested right from the start. It is currently being reviewed in the light of new insights and altered conditions which have been brought about by the crisis after 2008. Far from dropping the agenda, the European Commission proclaimed a 'second phase of flexicurity'. Yet, it is argued here that flexicurity needs a re-make independently of the crisis: Although it is set out to profoundly alter the way Europeans work and live, and even though it is being justified by workers' needs, flexicurity lacks of a clear and democratically justified idea for its societal impact. Firstly, the proposed contribution adds to the discussion by confronting flexicurity with the capability-approach: How is flexicurity related to a concept of employment as part of a way of life which people should have reason to value? How capability-friendly are established flexicurity-indicators? Secondly, the contribution discusses the benefit of applying the capability-approach in the field of labour-market and social policy, drawing on the authors' recent experience in the context of composing a doctoral thesis on the above topic.

At a first glance, flexicurity and the CA seem quite compatible and close in some points. Flexicurity seeks to introduce and protect a variety of contractual possibilities, forms of employment participation, activity profiles and salary schemes. This is supposed to enhance the strategic possibilities which are available to firms in order to react differently and adequately to the contingencies of global markets. At the same time, this multitude of possibilities can be considered the precondition for the freedom of workers to act according to their preferences and needs. For example, flexibility can allow them to choose a mode of employment participation which fits to their household contexts. However, there is also a potential conflict which arises around the use of flexibility and security: Who decides on their deployment, their form and their degree? According to balance of power in the firm, different groups of workers have different potential to make their voice heard vis-à-vis their employer. Accordingly, they can or cannot enforce an application of the options created by flexicurity which is also in their own benefit.

It will be argued that in principle, flexicurity has some capability-potential, i.e. it can enhance individual freedom. Yet, in order to guarantee this, there should be more reference to capability in official documents on flexicurity, e.g. by the EU-Commission, but also by national regulators. Furthermore, monitoring instruments for flexicurity should be sensitized to opportunity structures underlying workers' employment biographies. It is argued that the indicators suggested by the Employment Committee, an advisory body close to the EU-Commission, should be revised in this respect. Indicators are found to cover insufficiently the freedom dimension. Also, an ever greater intensification of employment participation seems to be aspired to. Macroeconomic goals, as laid down in the European Employment Strategy, thus seem to overrule the personal goals of workers in their households.

How useful is the CA for sparking new insights in the domain of critical policy analysis? The proposed contribution points to a number of aspects which speak in favour of the CA: Firstly, this approach to exploring well-being makes it clear that there is always a valuation exercise involved. The objects of evaluation (relevant functionings) need to be defined before measuring. This underlines the need for a democratic legitimacy of the tools of evaluation. Secondly, it is the well-being of individual persons which is in the focus of the CA, instead of goals which are only loosely connected to it. Thirdly, the CA integrates the individual and the societal perspective both at methodological and normative level. For example, by including both factual and counter-factual elements in its informational base, the CA allows for an evaluation which strikes the right balance between collective and individual responsibility. Fourthly, the CA preserves a high degree of openness, as normative sources are mostly external to it. This makes that the CA is not partisan for any political dogma and can be used across space and time. This is also due, fifthly, to its focus on freedom: By heeding the counter-factual dimension, the CA allows analysing whether observed differences are a result of choice or of constraint. This tackles a major problem of well-being measurement in the context of modern societies, which are characterised by a mix of voluntary and involuntary heterogeneity. Lastly, the CA is a realistic and pragmatic approach: It is interested in policy alternatives which both yield better outcomes and have a chance to become reality. This helps to avoid an idealistic trap which would cost the CA its political impact and its credibility. At the same time, it means using the best of all possible states as a yardstick, thus rejecting any policy which leads to sub-optimal outcomes in terms of well-being and freedom.

Looking also at drawbacks, a downside of the CA's great emphasis on public discussion has to be mentioned: The lack of criteria for defining and spotting examples of legitimate public discussion. For example, the issue of unequal power is relevant in the case of flexicurity, where employers' organisations and trade unions have unequal influence in European policy-making processes. Not knowing which discussion outcomes are legitimate, the researcher is often left in the dark about which functionings people really value and have reason to value in a given society. In consequence, the very tools which should be used for policy evaluation stay, to some degree, unclear.

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