From Choice to voice in Social Service Reform

In his latest Social Policy Whisperer column below, Prof. Paul Smyth from the University of Melbourne says we should not be looking for advice on the future of our social services from a quasi market perspective.

The Federal Government's Competition Policy Review Panel will be hosting a two day invitation-only conference on October 23-24 in which a major theme will be the further marketisation of social services.

Indicative of the agenda is the prominence among the speakers of Julian Le Grand.  As an economist in social policy, he has been a tireless advocate of ‘quasi markets’ and the ‘choice’ agenda in the United Kingdom for many years.   With ‘choice’ now being eclipsed by ‘voice’ in that country, Australian governments should really be looking elsewhere for advice on the future of our social services.

The irrelevance of the Le Grand (1997) agenda to Australia is immediately apparent from the historical rationale for reform he presented in his classic article, 'Knights, Knaves or Pawns? Human Behaviour and Social Policy’.

Taking issue with the post war ‘democratic socialist’ view of the welfare estate as embodying an altruistic culture counterbalancing the egoism of the market, Le Grand recommended we view its officers as self interested knaves rather than knights and its beneficiaries as pawns rather than empowered citizens.

Through quasi-markets, choice and competition would ‘harness the knavery’ of service to meet the needs of their consumers most efficiently.  And as all would-be knaves know, your motivation would become irrelevant.  Indeed for-profit providers could be welcomed into the fold to starch up the competition.

Le Grand and the CPR Panel will have their work cut out translating this English myth of knights and knaves into a society which knew no aristocracy.  No noblesse oblige here with grateful peasants duly obeisant to their paternalistic landlords.  Australian social services developed from below.  In earlier times social justice champions like Father Gerard Tucker fought for fairer societies in which everyone could access the vital services of education, health and welfare and especially those for whom free markets would not provide.  The welfare state itself, far from spawning pawns, brought a revolution in social work practice designed precisely to end the paternalism associated with the age of handouts and charity.

In Australia then we have looked to the voluntary sector and the state to give a Voice to people never well served by Choice in the free market. How encouraging then to see the revival of the ‘voice’ agenda in the UK.  This policy turn can be gauged from the Hugo Young Lecture by UK Labour’s Ed Miliband.He says:

“The time demands a new culture in our public services. Not old-style, top-down central control, with users as passive recipients of services. Nor a market-based individualism which says the answer is to transplant the principles of the private sector lock, stock and barrel into the public sector. Instead, we need a new culture of people-powered public services. We should always be seeking to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services. Giving them voice as well as choice.”

While Le Grand disparages the ‘social democratic’ account of the postwar welfare state, Miliband cites its chief apostle, TH Marshall, to remind us how necessary are the ‘social rights of citizenship’ to countervail the inequities of the market economy.

But what is really interesting about this account of the Voice agenda is that the new reform discourse is not grounded in economics. Its first impetus came more from conservative critics of neoliberalism like Philip Blond and Jesse Norman whose communitarianism has been matched by the so called ‘Blue Labourites’ Maurice Glasman and Jon Crudas.  This explication of Voice has also given a new lease of life to more sociological strands of thought; Miliband, refers for example to the works of Saul Alinsky and the feminists in the 1970s while paying his own debt to Richard Sennett’s book, ‘Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality’.

Interestingly Le Grand’s Knights and Knaves analysis appeared around the same time as Hilmer ‘ Mark One’.  Back then of course people were in awe of ‘market efficiency’ and Choice seemed just the right word for social as much as economic reform.  Hilmer ‘Mark Two’ however, looks out on an entirely different world shaped by the global financial crisis and rising global reaction against inequality.  'Voice not choice' represents the new language of reform and it is not a language economists are best placed to foster.