I have to do what the office says, otherwise I will somehow betray the office and I don’t want that either.Footnote 21
The expression of ‘betraying the office’ in this quote suggests a close affiliation between the official and the office that, we suggest, cannot be taken for granted. It implies a struggle for the ‘ideologically affected desires of state personnel’ (Gill 2009: 215), their ‘volitional allegiance’ (ibid.) with the office (also standing for ‘the system’). It is important, however, not to perceive the office solely as a unified whole. Rather, it appeared to us to be divided along complicated and evolving lines of affiliations and allegiances. These changing allegiances profoundly influence what ‘just’ decision-making means for caseworkers in particular situations. Thus, decision-makers align with what are imagined as ‘just decisions’ in the communities of interpretation they identify themselves with and are identified with, and distance themselves from other senses of ‘just’ decision-making.
These communities of interpretation evolve along the fissures between units, divisions, professions, experience, and hierarchy, and are crucial in order to grasp how notions of ‘just’ decision-making develop and become shared amongst different subdivisions of the office. However, we acknowledge that these fissures are not dividing lines: they are, to some extent, situational: not only are they complicated and evolving, but sometimes the fissures run right through individuals that feel torn between competing senses of ‘just’ decision-making. Also, there is arguably more mutual understanding between the various divisions than this rather antagonistic representation allows us to acknowledge. Officials in the office are affiliated to multiple ‘communities’ and may ‘change sides’. In this part we show contestations between different communities of interpretation evolving around the role of expertise and experience for correct and fair decision-making as well as around the importance of a legal approach versus so-called intercultural sensitivity and of compassion.
Nearly all caseworkers we spoke to in the reception centres tended to identify themselves primarily with their centre rather than with the SEM as a whole. In our conversations with them they often mentioned why they thought the work they did was better—in the sense of being more correct and fairer—than that of decision-makers working at the headquarters. The latter did the same. Decision-makers, both in the reception centres and at headquarters, considered it to be unfair that their decision-making sometimes differed. However, in order to overcome these differences they all expected the respective other to adapt to their way of doing things. Officials in the reception centres often highlighted that people at the headquarters in Bern were not as close to the claimants as they were. They used this closeness to the claimants to explain their own different, more ‘reality-grounded’ approach to decision-making. Officials in the headquarters, in turn, expressed reservations about practices in the reception centres that they considered to be ‘shirt-sleeved’ or ‘rush rush’ approaches, that suffered from a lack of either distance from the claimants or the necessary expertise. At stake here are different notions of ‘expertise’ that are considered necessary for correct and fair decision-making. Officials in the reception centres perceive their expertise to derive from their ‘close contact’ with asylum seekers and the vast number of conversations they have with them (since they conduct both the short and long asylum interviews, whilst the decision-makers in Bern only do the latter). Many decision-makers at the headquarters, on the other hand, consider their expertise to be greater and of more value, because they hold all the Federführungen and, therefore, have all the experts and their expertise ‘in house’.
Those in the ‘country teams’ they’re supposed to be the specialists. But then someone who’s been working at the SEM for half a year or so tells you what to do. Well […].
You mean that someone who’s new takes on a Federführung?
Yes, exactly. […] To give you a specific example; I once interviewed a woman from Somalia. She couldn’t [tell me] anything. So I asked the Federführung in Bern how this works with Somali women, whether I could give her a removal order. And then someone [from the Federführung] wrote back to me and said: ‘As a women she [belongs to] a vulnerable group’. As a woman you’re not per se vulnerable. […] I didn’t do it. I gave her a removal order anyway. And I was backed up.
Here we see a caseworker from a reception centre challenging the expertise and authority of a colleague at the headquarters. In this case, he simply does not follow her advice. Furthermore, the friction between newcomers or ‘inexperienced’ decision-makers and old-established officials becomes apparent in his statement.
Newcomers sometimes accuse old-established officials of having developed a ‘cynical’ attitude towards asylum applicants over the course of their career that they deem incompatible with rightful decision-making. Although they often express a certain understanding for developing cynicism and even sometimes state that nobody should do this job for too long, they are most impressed by old-established officials who have managed to maintain the ability to ‘see the humans behind applications’ and to make an effort to ‘reset’ after every interview, approaching ‘every asylum applicant as if she or he were the first’. Old-established officials, in turn, are sometimes sceptical of approaches to decision-making that they consider put personal opinions and feelings above the values of the larger ‘community of interpretation’, the office. Instead, they feel that some of the newcomers pursue ‘egoistic projects’. Hence, whilst experience is regarded by newcomers and old-established officials alike as essential for decision-making, experience is also believed to sometimes stand in the way of ‘just’ decision-making.
However, what ‘seeing the human behind the application’ means in practical terms is contested. What for some might fall within ‘seeing the human, instead of a number’, might already be regarded as ‘egoistic’ and ‘unfair’ by others as we showed in the previous section. These differences in decision-making are often related back to decision-makers’ political opinions, and also—more often—to their units, divisions or centres being ‘softer’ or ‘harder’.
Furthermore, in the office, different professional backgrounds of caseworkers and superiors are also mentioned as indicative of diverging perspectives on what correct and fair decision-making is. The main fault line seems to run between those with a legal background and those without, the latter usually having a social sciences or humanities background. As the asylum procedure involves writing legal orders, conducting interviews in complex intercultural settings (see Kälin 1986) and evaluating the credibility of asserted origin and persecution narratives, caseworkers often disagree on what ‘just’ decision-making means regarding these contrasting facets of their work. Thus, caseworkers quite often openly acknowledge taking a ‘legalistic’ approach or one that departs from it and express a clear preference for one way or the other. Of course, this is not only related to their professional background, but also to how they have been trained and socialised in the asylum office. Hence, whilst some superiors expressed a clear preference for employing new decision-makers who are legally versed and/or have a legal background, others prefer people who have travelled, ‘who know how things work abroad – not just in Russia, America or France, but in Bangladesh or Uganda for example – [and] who can free themselves from a eurocentric perception’.Footnote 23 These different employment strategies and the fact that the superiors themselves employ their decision-makers, explain to some extent why the different asylum units become important communities of interpretation. Of course, this also has to do with the hierarchical structure; with the superiors checking their employees’ decisions and deciding whether they are correct or not; and with decision-makers being trained on the job within the units.
A further fault line of affiliation and allegiance—one that is not specific to the asylum office but haunts most hierarchical bureaucratic organisations in some form or other—is that between the management and frontline staff or ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (see Lipsky 2010). While the former are concerned with broader strategic planning, organising the work of the latter and ‘steering’ the processes and outcomes of the whole, the latter are those typically meeting ‘clients’, processing cases and taking decisions in individual cases. A main tension in the office, as discussed above, arises between the management emphasising numbers and output and frontline staff who consider an (over-)emphasis on numbers problematic if not counterproductive to the complex work they do.
Vast differences seem to exist in the ways in which heads of divisions and units pass on the pressure to yield numbers to their subordinates: while some actively shield their staff from too rigid output target enforcement, others seem less able or willing to do so. And, as the following example highlights, they may themselves feel pressured or inclined to put the output first for career reasons or out of fear of losing their position:
It appears quite markedly; we’re only human. Now, for example: The head of division of the asylum procedure was only appointed ad interim and then they said: ‘Well, maybe he will then be appointed but maybe it [the position] will also be advertised’. And then he got really stressed out and he had to produce as good numbers as possible. So, he sat down with all the head of units and then they said: ‘What do we do now? We really have to increase the output, now that we’ve hired so many new people, now it has to rise’. […] It’s quite logical that these people are not efficient in the first three, four months and that the output rather decreases if the more experienced ones have to instruct the new people, if they come with questions, and they have to teach modules and so on. And this is logical, everybody knows that, actually in every operational management this is clear except, apparently, in the SEM, where one is afraid of the pressure, and of politics and such things, because these Swiss Federal CouncillorsFootnote 24 probably need to show results soon, and therefore one has decided, well yes, we have to increase the output.Footnote 25
This example nicely shows that even if output goals are frowned upon on the street-level, caseworkers try to make sense of the rationalities behind them. That does not mean, however, that they see them as ‘necessary’ and unavoidable as they feel the management sometimes implies. And, more importantly, it shows that they see them as a barrier that gets in the way of what they consider ‘just’ decision-making.