Social Policy Whisperer: The Vexed Issue of the Voluntary Sector

In today's Social Policy Whisperer column Prof. Paul Smyth from the University of Melbourne revisits the debate on the marketisation of community services.




Earlier this year I wrote of the NfP Phoenix rising from the ashes of marketisation as a post-neoliberal Australia followed a ‘triadic’ reform model based on the revitalisation of the social rights of citizenship and institutions of civil society. Since then there have been reasons to pause and reconsider. Some respected  academics  have lent some weight to the case for marketisation while there are indications that the push to sell off civil society has strengthened within governments in spite of protestations to the contrary.

Firstly, in my paper I asked where the support for the sell off was coming from? noting that I knew of ‘no academic great or small’ who was promoting such a thing. Well now two academics - definitely of the ‘great’ variety - have actually done so. Thus University of Melbourne’s Helen Sullivan invites us to see phenomena like the transfer of service provision from not for profits to multinationals (e.g. employment services) as examples of new forms of ‘hybrid ‘ governance. The key driver she sees as ‘globalisation’ which limits ‘the primacy of the nation-state over economic policy and decisions, encouraging us to experience public services as consumers first and citizens second.’ While concerned by the ‘challenge to democracy’ this can represent, Sullivan takes something of a ‘There Is No Alternative’ stance counselling us to prepare for these ‘global-local dynamics’ to produce further ‘hybridisation’ including greater ‘operation of global firms as public service providers…’ The problem with this TINA type argument is that we heard it all before. The 1990s was the high tide of globalisation theory. In terms of social policy it was deemed certain to shrink the welfare state in a competitive ‘race to the bottom’ but the opposite actually occurred. Social expenditures increased across the OECD and nation states retained their distinctive social policy imprints.

RMIT’s David Hayward made much of this increase in social spending in last week’s PtP contribution which was very much a three cheers piece for ‘large, global and private providers of public services’ like G4S (security services), Serco (justice, security, administration), and Transdev (public transport) entering the Australian social service scene.   In what must be a world research first (which in this case is a worry) he sees them as a product of the rise of the ‘social investment state’ and a challenge to people in the social services and community sectors to get over their preoccupation with ‘welfare’ and get out there and mix it with the Sercos in the brave new world of global human service markets.

While this almost Shergoldian enthusiasm for the market has a certain nostalgic charm reminiscent of the Third Way in full swing, it really misses the whole policy mood swing following the global financial crisis from Giddens style ‘social investment’ to the new paradigm of inclusive growth. In the latter a concern for reducing inequality has returned for reasons of economic efficiency as much as social freedom necessitating robust expansion of social services and community sector organisations as vital accompaniments to a well managed market economy (see Smyth and Buchanan (2013) Inclusive Growth in Australia).

While relatively unperturbed by these academic interventions there is a sense that champions of the triadic approach need to keep a close watch upon developments within the bureaucracy. In this regard I always find students in Masters classes (while always impeccably discrete) a great political weather bell and the current group are adamant that if anything my account of the great sell off of civil society underestimates the threat. When discussions include reference to a work group set up to plan the ‘decommissioning of NfPs’ I can see what they mean.

Meanwhile Victorians will have an opportunity to gauge the direction of reform with the work of the Roadmap for Reform: Strong Families, Safe Children now underway. Its expert advisory group brings together outstanding expertise from across government, academia and the not for profit sector. But interestingly the source of ‘Independent Expertise’ comes from the for profit firm of Deloitte who are of course past masters at facilitating the kind of hybridisation to which Sullivan refers. Their team will comprise Ms Fran Thorn, Ms Lyn Pezzullo, Mr Chris Richardson, Mr Ric Simes and Mr Ian Harper among whom ‘economic modelling’ seems to be the claim to expertise. It will be interesting to see whether or not this ‘modelling’ is consistent with the push to marketise education, health and welfare associated with Mr Harper’s work with the National Competition Policy Review or whether it  can adjust to the triadic approach.




What a misrepresentation of my work. Very disappointing that a respected Aus academic would selectively quote me and then conclude I hold a particular position. I have never argued that ‘there is no alternative’ but have asserted that we must take seriously the multiplicity of forces that are re-shaping state society relations but recognise that different groups have different kinds of agency to act on these forces. Disruption, adaptation, subversion and co-creation are everywhere affording us a perspective on the nature of contemporary governance that is much more nuanced than some others appear to allow. I have always been a vehement critic of some of the positions promoted by Paul Smyth, including ‘inclusive growth’ which seems to me to be both naive and itself an implicit adoption of the TINA position. But I would argue with him on the basis of what he has said and written not what I would like to infer he believes in order to pursue my own argument.


Sorry Helen that you think I have misrepresented your position.  I would not claim to be familiar with the whole corpus of your writings on public policy and have followed your thinking more through occasional pieces bearing on my interests in social policy.  I regard your opinions very highly which is why I took particular note of your comments at

on the growing encroachment of multinationals into Australian social service provision.   It may well be that the construction I placed upon it is out of keeping with your broader published views.

Posted by Sarah Toohey