Social Policy Whisperer: The war over (social) services and the voluntary sector

In his latest Social Policy Whisperer column below, Prof. Paul Smyth from the University of Melbourne considers the risk to the social rights of citizenship from the march of marketisation in social service provision in Australia, in the context of an important new book, a shift in international trends and an emerging local debate.

Recently I was privileged to preview the forthcoming book, Rights, Markets and Power in Australian Social Policy, edited by Sue Goodwin and Gabrielle Meagher of Sydney University. The book lines up chapters on all the major social services in Australia to show just how real and present is the threat to the substance of Australian citizenship created by the marketisation of services which has crept in over the last two decades. The analysis is even more disturbing in the light of the Federal Government’s now open push to kill off the ‘social’ in our services, leaving them to the disposal of private markets.

As someone who had long been part of the discussion over new public management and social services – for example, the debates over competitive tendering of employment services – I had never really thought of these ‘reforms’ as going to the substance of citizenship. Greater emphasis on markets had been proving very effective in the economy and while they may have seemed odd in relation to social services there was the possibility that our clever economists at the Productivity Commission could well have been finding more efficient ways to achieve the social goods we had grown to expect from our governments.

The book reveals a very different outcome: the spreading domain of private services and the shrinkage of the ‘social’ to a residue of ‘poor services for poor people’.

How do we stop this drift towards a crisis of the social? First we have to win the case for the entitlements of citizenship. Shouldn’t be hard! Look at the ACOSS national conference this year or the Civil Society program for the G20. You cannot mistake the signs of a global switch from pure market pathways towards the highly unequal ‘gilded age’ societies of the turn of the 21st century to a renewed focus on rights-based strategies ensuring that all citizens participate fully in Inclusive Growth. High quality social services become once again the arteries of the strong economy and great society.

The second strategy arises from Goodwin and Meagher who make the point that administrative reforms need to be appropriate to the goals we want to achieve. Here we should have a screaming consensus that marketisation is indeed a key to economic efficiency. But this is not the case when our goal shifts to ensuring that all citizens – and especially the most excluded – have equal access to the things that will maximise their real freedom. This is about social rights and requires appropriate public institutions to ensure that the resources are there for all citizens to maximise their participation.

Finally the war over our social services will challenge our community sector organisations. As commentary from Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews to this speech from the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Tony Nicholson* attests, the marketisation phase has distorted many agencies into little more than quasi government organisations. The need to reorganise the voluntary sector as a true complement to government (and certainly not a substitute!) in giving substance to the social rights of citizenship could not be more urgent.