June 28, 2010


A new model of welfare would work with the grain of our relationships: Labour missed its chance to redesign the welfare state. Now it's the coalition that is talking about mutualism and civic participation (Madeleine Bunting, 6/28/10, guardian.co.uk)

[T]his kind of radical redesign of services needs upfront state investment. Given the enthusiasm of the coalition last week for cost-cutting, it's hard to see how they could make space to invest in this kind of longer-term dividend. But it's exactly this kind of smart thinking that is so badly needed to avert some of the devastating social costs of cuts.

It starts from the premise that those who use a service must be involved in its design. The differences in status and authority between the professionals who run the service and those who use it have to be broken down. In another project designed with Participle for families with chronic problems in Swindon, it was the families who selected the teams of police, social workers and housing officers who would work with them on their plans to turn their lives around. The scheme is already saving considerable money and helping people back into work.

The irony is that back in 1948 Sir William Beveridge, the great architect of the welfare state, worried that there were flaws in his designs, that there was not sufficient "room, opportunity and encouragement for voluntary action in seeking new ways of social advance … services of a kind which often money cannot buy". He was concerned that services were orientated around need, making the citizen a passive recipient rather than an active participant. Power has always been in the hands of the professionals who operate the gateway (doctors, social workers and the like) and an increasing proportion of resources have been devoted to the gateway – assessing eligibility for the elderly, for example.

Now a number of people are thinking of how you implement Beveridge's prescient insights. Last week, the study Radical Efficiency (subtitled Different, better, lower-cost public services) offered examples from all over the world. David Halpern's new book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations, sees networks of human relationships as crucial and that public services are most effective when they work with the grain of them, rather than ignore them. He suggests currencies of care credits, such as the Japanese have developed to cope with their dramatically ageing population. In Japan, if you live a long way away from your parents, you care for an elderly person nearby and earn credits to be exchanged for care of your parents.

Halpern worked in Downing Street under Tony Blair, and now he is returning to advise the coalition's new champion of the Big Society, Lord Nat Wei. Among those who have been developing these ideas over the last few years is bewilderment that Labour missed a major opportunity to redesign the welfare state. It was too beholden to the idea of the state as the agent of change, using clunky, centralising levers of coercion, such as targets to urge on improvements in public services that have had only patchy success in areas such as welfare and social services. Now they realise with astonishment that the coalition has parked its tanks on traditional Labour territory, talking of mutualism, civic renewal and participation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 28, 2010 3:38 PM
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