Coping with tensions between standardization and individualization in social assistance

Today’s ambition to adapt and individualize welfare delivery poses a challenge to human service organizations at the same time seeking to standardize clients, with consequences for street-level bureaucrats. In this article, the implementation of an instrument for standardized assessment of income support (IA) in Swedish social services is used to investigate what strategies street-level bureaucrats use to cope with tensions between standardization and individualization. Results from six focus groups in two organizations show how job coaches cope by individualizing their practice towards the client, while caseworkers equally often cope through standardization, which could work towards or against the client, in order to keep their discretion and handle organizational demands. Results point to a loose coupling between IA as an organizational tool for legitimacy, and as a pragmatically used questionnaire. Conflicts and contradictions are left to street-level bureaucrats to deal with.